the seven deadly sins, vi-vii.

Micah 6:6-14a
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
9 The voice of the Lord cries to the city
(it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10   Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
and the scant measure that is accursed?
11 Can I tolerate wicked scales
and a bag of dishonest weights?
12 Your wealthy are full of violence;
your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
making you desolate because of your sins.
14 You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you ….

Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

We’re down to the last two of the traditional seven deadly sins
and Gandhi’s seven societal sins, and we’re covering both today
so we can finish our series and
celebrate the John Duvall Mission Emphasis next week.
If you’ve been keeping track,
you know all we have left of the traditional seven deadly sins
are greed and gluttony,
which have always seemed to me to be pretty much the same thing—
one associated more with stuff, one more with food,
but both having to do with a never being satisfied with what you have,
an ever desperate need for more—for getting more—for consuming more,
and with some corresponding vague implicit undefined unnamed sense
that in some more lies hope or fulfillment.

We’ve been associating the traditional seven deadly sins
with Gandhi’s seven societal sins, and I tied greed
to commerce without morality.
Anyone take issue with me identifying
both sins as sins that undergird our economy?

And we could talk about how that’s manifest
in cutting corners to make more money.
We could talk about commerce without morality
as the logical extreme of deregulation.
We could talk about some of the most successful businesses of all
that do not pay taxes,
which are the cost we all share
for both facilitating and participating in the benefits of our culture, right?
But more and more I’ve been thinking about our economy as one
less about the services offered than the profits made.
Medicine is less about caring for people
than through caring for people making money.
Banking is less about helping people with their money
than through helping people with their money making money.
Insurance so much less about protecting people through unexpected circumstance
than through protecting people making money.
Too cynical? Never not been the case?
I don’t know. Seems to have been part and parcel of business getting bigger.
And if it all seems backwards to me, it’s not just me
because every commercial for every business touts the service
even while bottom-lining the profit.
I think that’s because we all have some sense
that service is supposed to be the focus—the priority.
Not that we don’t make money,
but that it is secondary—a byproduct.
Too idealistic?
Nowhere near as idealistic as claiming the market will regulate business.
Commerce without morality.

As is our custom, we also then consider the insights afforded us
by inverting Gandhi’s sin to a morality without commerce—
which I was thinking about much along the same lines
as the inversion from politics without principles to principles without politics—
the idea that we can passively accept the status quo
and think we honor our principles and priorities.
without factoring in economic realities and justice.
We’ve said it numerous times before:
the single most significant detail
when it comes to determining life expectancy in this country
is a zip code—which is an economic factor.
To think we can advocate for freedom, equal opportunities, and justice
without addressing economic inequalities is naive.

Which brings us to our prophetic text
which comes from the life and words and work of Micah,
an eighth century BCE Judean prophet
very much invested in the lives of ordinary citizens
who lived outside the swamp—the capital city—southwest of Jerusalem.
Micah and his contemporary Isaiah (who lived in Jerusalem) offer us
a “picture of a society where the rich and powerful use their influence
to exploit the vulnerable and to create even greater inequalities
of wealth and influence….
The economic situation of the poor was further aggravated
by [a defense budget] to hold off the threat from foreign empires …”
(Daniel J. Simundson in The New Interpreter’s Bible
The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 534).
That is, just to be clear, eighth century BCE Judah.

Our text comes from an imagined courtroom scene
in which God is the plaintiff in a covenant lawsuit against God’s people.
Having laid out what all God has done on behalf of the people,
comes the response:
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?”
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
It’s a progression of liturgical offerings and sacrifices
up to the religious equivalent of a record-setting stock market
and the sacrifice of children to the system.
Of course in the Bible, that’s recognized as absurd.
Not that there aren’t always those few who could afford and would attempt to bribe God,
but that the vast majority would recognize the absurdity.
Yet there’s a meme going around social media you may have seen
that highlights the backwards hopes and fears endemic to our own culture:
we are always three bad months away from homelessness;
we are never three good months away from being a billionaire!
And yet, we consistently protect the unlikely possibility of vast wealth
even as we increase the probability of poverty and homelessness.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

It’s not what you can theoretically do with lots of money if one day you had it.
It’s not symbolic acts in worship.
God names good the everyday life of the people
invested in justice and what’s right and humility.
Again, let me remind you, in case you were wondering,
this is the prophetic word for eighth century BCE Judah.

Affirmed throughout the prophets,
God listens and watches—
hearing and seeing not just the lives of God’s people,
but the various contexts in which those lives unfold.
And God cries out to the city:
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
and the scant measure that is accursed?
Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
“God cannot forget or tolerate the wickedness that is so prevalent,
particularly in the cheating, stealing and lying that goes on
in the name of commerce” (Simundson, 581).

I am most familiar with the lies told by the tobacco industry,
but who among us truly thinks the fossil fuel industry
is primarily invested in giving us the facts—in what’s best for us?

But the hard word is it’s not just what they are doing—
what big business is doing.
You cannot be a moral person in this or any culture
without careful consideration of your personal, local, and national economies.
Every budget is a highly moral document
and injustice in the marketplace—the wrong priorities in a budget
comprise the sin of a culture
for which all members of the culture bear responsibility.
We tend not to like that.
We want our goodness contingent on us—
not on larger social realities of which we are a part
that create and maintain profound inequities.

Also persistently affirmed throughout the prophets
is God’s response to what God sees and hears.
“Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
making you desolate because of your sins.
You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you ….”
Sometimes called a curse of futility,
who among us thinks that’s something God does to us
and not what we’ve done to ourselves?
A consequence, not a punishment.
Sometimes what we call God responding in judgment is God naming judgement.
We’ll come back to that.

Then there’s gluttony which is what the church has largely turned faith into
when we consider Gandhi’s societal sin of worship without sacrifice.
Let me unpack that.
In the first century CE, someone wrote to the Ephesians in the name of Paul saying,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And I get it.
There is the need to acknowledge our limits
and to stress the initiative, power, and will of God for salvation—
especially in our rugged individualistic, privatized
culture-shaped way of looking at the world and so at faith too.
There’s something powerfully and fundamentally true about needing grace.
about admitting upfront, I can’t do this—can’t buy it—acquire it—
arrange it—coordinate it—enable it—facilitate it.

And so we sing, “Jesus paid it all.”
celebrating the uniqueness of Jesus—
who is who we cannot be and who does what we cannot do.
But then that significant, needed affirmation crosses a line
(like when a service becomes profit-driven)
a line in which everything gets turned back on itself in some twisted inversion of itself—
and even worship becomes just a matter of what someone else did for us—
someone else’s commitment—the risk someone else took in their way of being,
not about the commitment expected of us—
that same risk to incarnate that same way of being.

But how is that gluttony? you might well ask.
Jesus paid it all. Jesus forgives it all.
And so what difference does it make what we do and keep doing?
And we get more and more and more and more of the same
even as we affirm transformation—profess transformation—
and never change.
Long before the White House was naming and blaming
and practicing and preaching fake news,
preachers perfected the art of turning hard news that’s good
into cheap news that’s heresy.

Walter Brueggemann in an article called
“The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity”
identifies the “conflict between the narratives of abundance
and of scarcity” as “the defining problem confronting us …”

The world assures us if we worship scarcity,
we won’t have to sacrifice anything.
We’ll just have to buy and hoard everything.
And what we do sacrifice (though the world never tells us this)
is our peace—our well being.
The gospel assures us, asserts Brueggemann, we “can live
according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious,
frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home
and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.

But if you are like me, while you read the Bible
you keep looking over at the screen to see how the market is doing.
If you are like me, you read the Bible on a good day,
but you watch Nike ads every day.…

According to the Nike story,
whoever has the most shoes when he dies wins.
The Nike story says there are no gifts to be given
because there’s no giver.
We end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves.
This story ends in despair.
It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality.
It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor,
the buildup of armaments, divisions between people,
and environmental racism.
It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves—a
and it is the prevailing creed of American society.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if liberal and conservative church people,
who love to quarrel with each other, came to a common realization
that the real issue confronting us is whether the news of God’s abundance
can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity?”
Now that, my friends, is a prophetic word by an Old Testament scholar
aimed straight at us.

In conclusion, we invert worship without sacrifice into sacrifice without worship
to see what there is to learn.
My guess is Dad might say I’m reaching again!
But it is David Dark’s idea,
articulated in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious,
that we all worship—all make sacrifices to honor that one value or priority—
that controlling story to which our lives testify.
Yet we resist calling it worship; we resist calling it God.
We resist the idea that spirituality defines us too.
You may remember I mentioned the world asking us to worship scarcity?
Our culture asks us to worship stuff—
not anything in particular—just stuff.
Greed and gluttony are both symptomatic
of such worship—defined by the terrible fear of emptiness.
And fear is what makes those who are small
grasp for anything to make them feel bigger and more.

As we wrap up our Epiphany worship series on these sins,
we remind each other, yes, sin is heading down a way not God’s.
It is a way of fear and anger,
but sin is also the means by which we are invited
(through recognition—confession—repentance)
to intentionally choose to grow ever more into the way of God.

Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who heroically opposed Adolf Hitler,
was a young man when, as part of a delegation of leaders
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, he met with Hitler in 1933.
Niemöller stood at the back of the room and looked and listened.
He didn’t say anything. When he went home,
his wife asked him what he had learned that day.
Niemöller replied, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man”
Who are you going to follow?
Inasmuch as you can, make sure they’re not small and afraid.

Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer
in his posthumously published apologetic Pensées wrote:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness,
[this smallness, right?] proclaim but that there was once
in [human beings] a true happiness,
of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This [they try] in vain to fill with everything around [them],
seeking in things that are not there
the help [they] cannot find in those that are,
though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only
with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God”
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)).

But don’t listen to Pascal.
Don’t listen to Brueggemann or David Dark.
Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to the Bible.
Just watch your screens.
Well, watch your screens with your mind turned on as well.
Commercials tell us our lives are empty.
Social media tells us our stories are empty—especially compared to others.
Popular media tells us our time is empty. Watch this inanity—this insanity.
Politics tells us to be afraid of them who want to take from us—
to be afraid if our guns are empty,
economics is too much about telling us to get more and more—
as much as we can to protect ourselves from

But God says, you were created full—
full of personality—
full of giftedness—
full of joy.
You were created to fill your time not with stuff
and not with stuff to do,
but with music and with stories and with relationships and conversations.
You were created to create.
You were created in the very image of God.
There is a fullness that overflows you enough to baptize all creation,
not an emptiness in need of any kind of filling.

Gospel is not about making the best just within the way it is;
gospel is rejecting the fundamental premise of the way it is
to be opened on another way to completely new and different hopes—
unfathomable without a fundamentally different premise of what is most real.
My friends, you were created full—full—full!

the seven deadly sins, v.

Psalm 52
To the leader.
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,
of mischief done against the godly?
All day long 2you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking the truth.
4 You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.

5 But God will break you down for ever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living.
6 The righteous will see, and fear,
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 ‘See the one who would not take
refuge in God,
but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!’

8 But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
9 I will thank you for ever,
because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful
I will proclaim your name, for it is good.

Today is Sydney’s birthday.
17 years old. Hard to believe!
I asked her what she wanted for her birthday in worship.
That’s what you get asked if you’re a preacher’s kid!
She asked if we could sing, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”
I said, “Sure. Any other hymns you particularly like?”
“Be Thou My Vision.”
“You got it. Anything else?”
“Have a good sermon!”
Still not sure how to take that one!
I’ll do my best.
But you know (or do if you’ve looked at the sermon title)
that our societal sin today is politics without principles—
a societal sin I tied to the traditional sin of wrath.
You heard the psalm read—
the explicit exhortations against boasting and lying—
against treachery and trusting in money.

And I’m not going there, I said to myself.
It’s too easy.
Low hanging fruit.
Such very low hanging fruit.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to you, o my God.
And if I offend any of you today, well,
I hope I do so for the right reasons—or in the right way—
or within relationships and a community
in which I can fall miserably on my face!

I want you to know
I’ve been writing sermons now for coming up on thirty years
and I can tell you this is the hardest sermon I’ve ever written.
And I’ll tell you upfront, I may have failed miserably.
I have never written as much for a sermon that I cut—
which was appropriate—the right thing to do.
I wrote pretty much a political rant. Scrapped that.
It was a list of everything at which I take offense—
a lot of which is wrapped up in my values and priorities as a follower of God,
but it didn’t feel quite right.
Y’all have your own sense of how your faith
shapes your political expectations—your political hopes and fears,
and it’s my job to remind you you should,
but never to tell you how.
So policy is off the table …
except for policy that is unjust, cruel—without principles, right?
So I had a list of policies that I think are unjust and cruel,
but maybe that’s just my opinion—my interpretation,
and is a sermon the time and place to unload all that on you?
Plus, I couldn’t get through it without getting really angry,
and what’s our sin today?

And it’s true of every president—every administration:
their decisions and policies will have long-term consequences on people I love
and on God’s good creation,
But you’re not here to hear my assessment of political fallout,
as important and scary as I may think it is.

Nor are you here to hear my opinion of a man
who I think makes it quite clear what kind of man he is,
other than to say, “I will assume your eyes are open,
that you keep them open, and that you believe what you see.”

I have also had several tell me through the years
they would prefer not to know who their pastor votes for.
Politics is not what they come to church to hear.
And I get that—at one level.
And you will not know leaving today who I would vote for.

You get your political news from your preferred sources.
That’s not what you expect or want from me.
However, consider our inversion today
and as easy/as low hanging as politics without principles seems to be,
principles without politics is as much a sin and more of a challenge—
to think we can hold onto certain values and priorities—
to think we can claim the way of God—
and not have it necessarily translate into political investment.

Cornel West, son of a Baptist preacher,
Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard,
asserts “Justice is love in the public square.”
a politically charged theological affirmation.
So principles without politics might constitute believing in justice, say,
but being unwilling to wade into the injustice of our justice system—
the mass incarceration of people of color in for profit prisons.
A principle might be believing in equality,
the lack of principle evident in being too comfortable
within the privilege of the systemic racism of our culture
to rock the boat.
The principle of particular political hopes
without caring what means are used to achieve desired ends.

Something I’ve told my classes,
“As theologians with integrity, there are no easy outs from the hard conversations.
In fact, it’s the hard conversations we often most need to have.
Not that it’s my job to evaluate your professions of faith (or your politics),
but it is my job to help you think through them carefully
and be able to justify them.
So here are things I’m telling you need to be justified:

the spiraling national debt (or to frame it differently:
the long term consequences of decisions made for short term gain),
the exorbitant amounts of money spent without question on violence
and the slashing of virtually any money spent to provide for the most vulnerable (and that is nothing new—that is our culture, not this administration),
cutting food stamps for the hungry while paying farmers not to grow food
“You don’t understand economics, John,” you might say,
and I will confess I do not understand economics,
but I know the taste that leaves in my mouth.
Those children separated from their families, put in cages,
without records being kept and the people making money off of them,
the prioritization of making money over offering needed services,
the people desperately trying to escape the horror back home
(in many cases exasperated by our country’s past foreign policies)
trying to escape horror and embrace freedom and hope
who are summarily sent back and killed
and “Oh, but we didn’t kill them,” seems—
totally inadequate.

And regardless of whether or not what he is working for is appreciated,
how he is has to be justified—how he treats people,
and “Well, he’s a little rough around the edges;” “He’s a brawler,
but he gets things done” does not cut it for me as your pastor.
Whether that’s his casual relationship with truth,
or the way he uses wealth as a bully—to not pay bills or to solicit dirt,
or the documented scams that promise money will go to a charity or to education—
whether that’s the way he mocks and denigrates individuals,
people groups, ethnicities, nationalities.
And if we have to argue whether he’s truly racist
or just using racist and white supremacist dog whistles,
I’m going to say the argument’s moot.

In discussions of whether or not he has the right and the authority
to do what he does—in debates about the legality,
what seems too much lost is the question, is it right?
Is it admirable? Is it noble? Does it make the world a better place?
Or are those antiquated questions of a time long past—
or a time that never was?

And what does it do, time and time again,
to have as the president a man we interpret to our children—
have to interpret to our children, over and over again,
“We don’t act like that; we don’t talk like that; we don’t treat people like that.”

Now maybe that was all too specific.
But how do we talk about something important without being specific?
Maybe it’s all skewed by my perspectives,
and maybe you have a sense of how all that can be justified.
Well then let’s have coffee. I promise just to listen!
I am fundamentally opposed to anything that might be called a bully pulpit,
and we can arrange a time and place to model respectful dialogue, opposing views.

Wednesday, Peter Wehner wrote for The Atlantic:
“We are living in the Era of Rage”—
which in light of our worship emphasis might be paraphrased:
“We are living in the Era of Sin.”
And I’m not sure I’ve ever been as regularly furious.

Stephanie Anthony, presbyterian pastor in Geneva, Illinois,
friend of a friend, was at the National Prayer Breakfast this past Thursday.
Arthur Brooks, past president of the American Enterprise Institute,
a conservative think tank, spoke on forgiving your enemies.
Now remember, this was the day after the acquittal after the non-trial.

Stephanie wrote: “I appreciated one segment of the address that has been reported about at least on the New York Times website. Dr. Brooks asked for a show of hands of everyone who was in a relationship with someone they love, either friend or family, with whom they disagree politically. The report goes on to say that just about every hand in the room shot up, except the president’s. That was true. What came after that poll was the statement Dr. Brooks made that said (not a direct quote, but from my typed up notes and I’m too tired to go back and find it in a video online), “If this is not true for you, you live in an echo chamber.” His address went on to challenge us to get out of echo chambers, intentionally put ourselves in situations with people with whom we disagree, and get about responding in love as opposed to contempt which is tearing the country apart. I thought it was very well done.

There’s no other way to say it other than the president completely shifted the feel of the whole event. Shaking not one, but two different papers to an intentionally bipartisan audience who were present to unite in the spirit of prayer was taunting and disappointing. His address also took the content of the event in a dramatically different direction. It was no longer an encouragement about loving others, especially enemies, and instead became a justification for division, denial of other’s expressions of faith, and something that felt much more like a campaign rally than an address grounded in faith and the practice of prayer.

One of the media’s go-to representatives
for the perspective of the evangelical church’s support of Trump,
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas,
in response to Trump’s vindictiveness said that Trump
“absolutely hates phoniness…and the president thinks
there’s something inherently phony
about saying that you’re praying for him
while you’re working 24/7 to destroy him”

Oh, because Jesus was completely unaware
of the phoniness that surrounded him,
you know when he first taught forgiveness of his enemies.
He was completely unaware of Judas imminent betrayal—
oh, wait, no, he said something about that—
completely unaware of Peter’s imminent betrayal,
oh, wait, no, he said something about that too.

“After someone told Trump that Jesus commands us to ‘love our enemies,’
he asked Jeffress what the pastor thought about it.
‘I said, ‘Mr. President, to love your enemies means to want God’s best for them,
but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be unified with them. Truth divides people.’ ”

He didn’t know that Jesus commanded love of enemy.
Someone told him.
That level of ignorance about Jesus
from someone who says he’s a Christian,
from someone supported overwhelmingly by the evangelical church is unfathomable to me.
Not not doing it.
Not knowing it.
This the darling of the evangelical church and of Mr. Jeffress.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing
but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits”
(Matthew 7:15-16a).
Obviously Mr. Jeffress and I are looking at different fruit.
What fruit do you see?

My friends, every colleague I respect is deeply suspicious of our president.
And maybe I’m in my comfortable echo chamber—
except it doesn’t feel at all comfortable to me.

Here’s the thing:
I grew up in Germany. Most of you know that.
And I have a deep and profound horror
of ever coming to the point where I would look back
and feel the terrible regret and shame of thinking I never said anything.
As a pastor, as one called to proclaim the way of God we see in Jesus,
I was silent as another way was chosen
and as the consequences of having chosen another way became apparent.

And what I see in Trump and in much of our culture is not of Christ.
It is not shaping a reality that is of Christ—
that shining city on a hill.
“That’s not his job” is a valid response.
But that criticism is my job.

Presbyterian hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
wrote a new hymn this past week
to the tune of “Lead On, O King Eternal” called “O God of All the Nations.”

O God of all the nations, your ancient prophets saw
that kings and institutions are not above the law.
Integrity is precious, and truth will one day stand;
Your way is peace and justice, and love is your command.

O God, when times are troubled, when lies are seen as truth,
When power-hungry people draw praise and not reproof,
When greed is seen as greatness, when justice is abused,
We pray that those who lead us will know what they must choose.

We pray they’ll gather wisdom and lift up high ideals,
To guide our struggling nation along a path that heals.
We pray they’ll have the vision to value each good law,
To put aside ambition, to seek the best for all.

O God of all the nations, may those who lead us see
that justice is your blessing, that truth will set us free.
Give all of us the courage to seek the nobler way,
So in this land we cherish, the good will win the day.

A friend commented, “I wouldn’t have been able to do it
without getting snarky, but that’s really good.”
Maybe I’ve failed this morning. Failed you. Failed my calling.
Maybe I’ve taken the easy road of being snarky.
I know I did with that Dallas pastor.
But I didn’t mean to on the whole; I tried not to.
You see, I’m not sure I’ve ever been as regularly furious,
and there’s part of that that feels right.
How do we distinguish prophetic rage from partisan rage—
anger that’s appropriate from anger that is a deadly sin?

Etymologically the word “wrath” comes to us through Old English
from the Proto-Germanic meaning “strength.”
Isn’t that a good thing? God’s promise of assurance?
“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid,
for I am your God; I will strengthen you …” (Isaiah 41:10).
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”
(Philippians 4:13).
“[T]hose who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength …
(Isaiah 40:31).
“[B]e strong in the Lord and in the strength of the power of God”
(Ephesians 6:10).

And yet our Scriptures also explicitly name strength weakness.
“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,
so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships,
persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ;
for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

So what is the strength of God?
We talk about the omni’s in class—
the traditional attributes of God:
omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, immutable.
The classic way of thinking of God.
And I tell my class as I’ve told you before—told you regularly.
That’s not my experience of God.
In my experience, the strength of God
(and so the biblical idea of strength) is associated with love
and the persistent grace that does not leave you angry.
Oh, it might make you angry.
But it does not leave you angry.

He seems angry to me all the time.
Andy Lester was a professor of mine (and of my wife’s actually).
He wrote a book called Coping with Your Anger: A Christian Guide
(I’ve mentioned it to you before), a clinical study
in which he suggests anger is always the response to a perceived threat
that is then either appropriately or inappropriately expressed
You know, be angry but do not sin (Ephesians 4:26).
Trump must see threats all around him all the time.
He always seems angry—always blaming—always attacking—
threatening—because he never feels safe or secure.
And that is tremendously sad.
And it is too easy to come down on him,
without looking at ways we are responsible for him—
for what he represents that he is reflective of our culture and so of us—
what we have allowed—condoned—not confronted—resisted—
or not confronted and resisted effectively enough.
And as I’ve said, I am so consistently angry these days.

So where do I locate my anger? What do I claim as strength?
What do I identify as being threatened?
For him, I think it’s him. It’s always all about him.
I hope—I pray I see a way of being being threatened—
I pray I see other people being threatened—
values and priorities I hold dear—the way to which I gave my life.
And strength in that way does not lie in being mean—
in blaming others.
but rather in justice and grace and love.

It’s never that we’re to ignore what’s going on.
It’s never that we’re not to be angry,
but that our focus is not our fear in response to some threat,
but our commitment and our joy.
For we do believe ultimately
that fear and anger and violence (as much damage as they do)
are what the world sees as strength that God knows as weakness.
And I know that’s ultimately—
while most of us live much more immediately
and much more immanently than we do ultimately.

Sydney, I don’t know that I had a good sermon.
Not sure what I said—how I said it was good—was appropriate.
But I do believe that what I tried is vitally important—
that these are the conversations we avoid that we need to be having—
need to figure out how to be having.
Maybe today is nothing more than a lesson in how not to.
But when your child is celebrating her or his 17th birthday,
I pray the world will be a better place
because of us and not in spite of us—
because we chose to have the hard conversations—
to talk about the specifics—
and to grow in the strength of God
that casts out fear in grace and hope.

the seven deadly sins, iv.

Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus is in Jerusalem.
In Matthew’s chronology it’s early in the week
that would come to be known as holy—
the week that began with Jesus arriving in Jerusalem
on the donkey and the colt,
that had him going to the Temple and raising a ruckus,
the week through which he stayed in Bethany—
presumably with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—
returning to the city each morning.
He spent a good bit of time at the temple teaching and telling stories—
even after the initial ruckus he raised there.
Staring down the consequences of his life and teaching that week,
he still had things to say, and in our text, he says
to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

Respect their position—respect the office,
the tradition, the story, the truths they teach,
but do not respect them, for they do not deserve your respect.
Their lives do not sync with what they teach—
with what you would expect from those in such office,
and you are not to respect anyone simply for the office they hold.”
The words of Jesus for the people of God.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
and lay them on the shoulders of others;
but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
They make others live with consequences they reject for themselves,
make others live in circumstances and with conditions
of which they know little, seek to know even less, and care least of all.

They do all their deeds to be seen by others;
for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.
They love to have the place of honor at banquets
and the best seats in the synagogues,
and to be greeted with respect in the market-places,
and to have people call them rabbi.
They love being considered special—leaders—powerbrokers—
winners of the biggest game there is to play.

Amidst the great truths of which they are a part—
the great tradition in which they wrap themselves,
their lies are calculatedly costumed and choreographed—
carefully scripted
but their rhetoric as leaders is undermined
by the flexibility of their priorities
and the artificiality of their concerns.
Easy enough to understand simply as hypocrisy,
but I wonder if these are not so much the lies of hypocrisy we’re talking about,
as those of knowledge without character—
which I’m going to suggest connotes envy.
Let me tell you why.

Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. is the great grandson of Nelson W. Aldrich … not junior,
who was himself grandfather to the famous Rockefellers
and a leader of the Senate in his day,
“a Rhode Island grocer [who] entered the Senate in 1881 worth $50,000
and left 30 years later worth $12 million ….”
His salary as a senator for that time (I looked this up)
was $5,000 a year—
though, to be fair, for his last five years it was $7,500 a year
Bribery is apparently something we as US citizens
have always tolerated in our politicians.

Nelson Aldrich, Jr.’s book Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America,
that The Atlantic Monthly called “the best nonfiction book
about the American upper class written by one of its members
since Henry Adams’ Education” (op. cit.,
includes this insight: “envy is so integral and painful a part
of what animates human behavior in market societies
that many people have forgotten the full meaning of the word,
simplifying it into one of its symptoms of desire.
It is that (a symptom of desire) which is why if flourishes in market societies ….
But envy is more or less than desire.
It begins with an almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself,
as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air…”

I have taken on the mission of reclaiming and celebrating nuance.
So, a little nuance for you this morning:
Admiration is viewing positively what another has or does.
Jealousy is missing what another has or does—
feeling its lack in your own living.
Coveting is wanting what another has.
Subtle difference there—missing focused on my lack,
coveting focused on what they have.
Envy is not just wanting what someone has or does or is,
but wanting them not to have it—do it—be it.
wanting them to be wanting.
That’s why envy is the deadly sin.

Steve Shoemaker, a former pastor of mine,
in a book he wrote about the seven deadly sins and the seven lively virtues,
put it this way: “Envy turns Paul’s instruction, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice
and weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12:15) upside down.
We rejoice when others weep and weep when they rejoice”
(H. Stephen Shoemaker, The Jekyll & Hyde Syndrome:
A New Encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues)
That makes of envy a mean-spirited emptiness—an insatiable vacuousness—
an idolatrous investment not so much in upward mobility—
a more elevated status—stature
(though that may be the language used)
as in a desperate pushing others down
that makes you feel taller even though you have not grown a bit.
An it-doesn’t-really-matter-how-low-I-am-
if-I-can-push-others-even-farther-down mentality.
Envy is the misguided attempt to feel better about yourself
not just amidst the misery of others, but due to the misery of others.

There’s a German word that’s been adopted into English:
Schadenfreude, a compound word from two words
that literally mean damages and joy—
taking joy in the damages another suffers.
And Schadenfreude is most often a symptom of envy.

While it may not always be immediately apparent,
it is always eventually apparent—
and it is never lost on the envious themselves,
that they are missing something—
something they didn’t get as part of their growing up
that they needed that they don’t see in their living.
Etymologically, our word envy comes from the Latin verb “to see”
and a prefix meaning “at,” “against,” or “not” or “opposite of.”
The envious see something vital in others they do not see in themselves
that leaves them constantly hungering—
desperately denying others in their envy.
And if they “succeed” (however that’s understood)—
the more they “succeed”—
the more they gain monetarily or politically—
the more people they mock or dismiss,
the more people they denigrate and blame,
because the more they know they are simply perpetuating
what made them feel empty to begin with—
ever acquiring but inadequate substitutes for what matters.
This is, by the way, one of the definitions of hell.

But you are not to be called rabbi,
for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
And call no one your father on earth,
for you have one Father—the one in heaven.
Nor are you to be called instructors,
for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

Titles and honorifics are not for you—
especially not ones that raise you above others.
It’s about humility again, isn’t it?
Knowing your place—not belittling your place,
but recognizing it.
The greatest among you will be your servant.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
And see there it is again—the truth of our God
and (supposedly) our faith
that envy turns inside out and upside down.
Envy thinks it can be exalted by humbling others—
mocking others—putting others down.

Our text is explicit though: all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted,
just as in our story unfolding as it did long ago in Jerusalem,
Jesus was exalted—Jesus was raised up—to die—
raised up on the cross,
and then Jesus was entombed—laid low—
in order to rise.

That is more than just the story of Jesus, by the way.
That is God’s truth—
reality envisioned and created by God—
really always being created by God—
and the way we are called to participate
in the ongoing shaping of reality—
which is not political.

There is no political Messiah.
There is no political Savior—
just politicians wanting to wear such expectations—
coveting the attributes of all powerful, all knowing, infallible—
wrapping their emptiness in religious language and imagery
in the envy that seeks to push even God down.

Which brings us to our Woodbrook twist on Gandhi—
Gandhi’s knowledge without character
twisted to character without knowledge.
Dad questioned this. He thinks I’m pushing here.
He thinks if you have character, you do not reject knowledge.
I don’t disagree,
but I’m reminded these days of A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.
I showed his TED talk to my class and speaking of creationists
he said, “[T]hey were not stupid people at all.
I would wager that their IQ is exactly the same as the average evolutionist.
It’s just that their faith is so strong in this literal interpretation of the Bible
that they distort all the data to fit their model.
And they go through these amazing mental gymnastics to accomplish this.”
In like manner, I do not question at all that there are good people
who think very differently than I do—scripturally, theologically, politically, morally.
Some of them seem to distort the data to fit their model—
doing all kinds of moral gymnastics to justify themselves.
And I must remain vigilant, because I’m sure they say the same of me.
But I will not impugn the character of someone
who rejects knowledge … necessarily … maybe.
Though maybe that’s in theory.
Maybe Dad’s right.
Because it’s hard to affirm character
in someone who turns their back on the evidence.

Which in good timing brings us to how we’ve also been mentioning
what might serve as antidotes to some of these deadly sins.
One antidote to—or balance for envy is gratitude.
Have y’all seen these gratitude journals?—
formats for tracking gratitude in bullet journals?
Noticing that for which we are grateful—naming gratitude—
is a profoundly helpful discipline
when it comes to combatting envy—
that emptiness—
because gratitude has to do with fullness.

We do it every Thanksgiving, by the way.
Set aside some time to name specifics for which we are grateful.
Actually, real quick: think specifically of what are you grateful for.
Turn and tell a neighbor.

Gratitude. There is another antidote to envy worth noting.
Jim Somverville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
preachers’ camp member also preaching this seven sins series
in a different order though (which can be incredibly helpful!).
In his sermon on envy, Jim told the story of a former church member, Gordon,
with Cerebral Palsy, and he … got around in a motorized wheelchair
and communicated—slowly and with great difficulty—
through a keyboard attached to the frame.
One day we were having coffee and I asked him,
“Gordon, how do you do it?” by which I meant,
“How do you live your life with out being eaten up with envy
that everyone else has it so easy and you have it so hard?”
And slowly, and with much difficulty, he began to type out the answer.
“I don’t look around at everybody else,” he said.
“I look at my own life.” As we talked further Gordon explained
that, like everybody else, he had good days and bad days.
His benchmark was down here somewhere;
it took him two hours to get dressed in the morning.
My benchmark was up here; it took me fifteen minutes, sometimes less.
But Gordon wasn’t looking at my benchmark; he was looking at his.
And as long as he looked at his, he was fine.
“How was your day, Gordon?” “It was great!
It only took me an hour and forty five minutes to get dressed!”
(Jim Somerville, “The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy,” Richmond’s First Baptist Church, January 19, 2020)

Look to your own life.
Find blessings.
Be grateful for all you have for which to be grateful—
not because of how it compares to what anyone else has.
Social media is no friend of gratitude
and serves jealousy and covetousness
and can lead to envy.

Earlier I referenced the story of Jesus that is more than just the story of Jesus.
So what specifically does Jesus offer us to help us live without envy?
I mean, doesn’t Jesus save us from our sins?
Except I tend not to think Jesus will save us from ourselves.
Tend not to think Jesus has a magic get out from under the influence of sin card.
I tend to think he shows us the way.
It’s his way.
But whether or not it’s ours is not up to Jesus, but up to us.

So we look to the story for its lessons—
its insight into truth—its transformative possibilities?
I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:27), says Jesus.
The leader among you must become like one who serves,
says Jesus (Luke 22:26).
Lean into the assurance of God’s reality
more than … well, anyone else’s assurances.
Don’t work so hard to be exalted.
All anyone looking up at you sees is your … rear end.
Especially if you’re stepping on them to get up.
Stay with people where they are.
Look them in the eye so they see you in the eye too.

The biblical tradition in which Jesus was raised was one of humility.
One third of the answer to what God requires of us
is knowing our place—
knowing our great calling to participate in the redeeming of all creation,
while knowing at the same time we are not God.

Now that is a little more complicated when it comes to Jesus,
theologically speaking—Jesus who was God (John 1:1),
but that priority of—that commitment to knowing one’s place
holds true even of Jesus who did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped, but humbled himself,
obedient even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).

My friends, we may have different theories
as to why this is the case,
but I think it’s hard to argue that it’s not the case:
that our culture is focused more on empty than on full,
on scarcity more than abundance—
that our culture is more fearful than brave (despite our national rhetoric)—
more invested in me than in you and in us more than in them—
more emotionally reactive than thoughtfully responsive—
that we are too much too small and too violent, dismissive of others—
more interesting in dominating than relating—in blame than responsibility—
less interested in partnership than in power—
perceiving bipartisanship as weakness—
and desperately trying to name what is truly weakness strength.
Ironic, isn’t it? As arguably the wealthiest, most prosperous culture in the world,
we are also arguably one of the most envious ones too.
We have sought fullness in all the wrong places.
This is our legacy—or it is the legacy being shaped.
But it is not the priority to which we must bow.
It is the culture in which we move and breathe and have our being,
and shape us it inevitably does, but it must not define us.

For we as those on the way of God, are defined by a fullness overflowing.
We look and see an uncontainable, irrepressible abundance.
We are a profoundly grateful people
who think carefully and deeply and feel as deeply as we think.
Ours is the uplifting call to the work of raising others,
affirming and celebrating others,
of confessing our sins less in order to transcend them
as to learn through them how to grow,
blaming not others but responsible ourselves.
And while we may fall short—may regularly fall short,
we get up time and time again and we keep trying,
because really, who wants—who really wants the alternative?

the seven deadly sins, iii.

Isaiah 31:1-3
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!
Yet he too is wise and brings disaster;
he does not call back his words,
but will rise against the house of the evildoers,
and against the helpers of those who work iniquity.
The Egyptians are human, and not God;
their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
and they will all perish together.

We are considering sin this Epiphany season—
the seven deadly sins to be specific,
but sin as a focus through which we can grow.
I mentioned the fourth century monk who came up with a list of eight sins,
the pope who formalized the list.
There is also a tradition
that a list of sins emerged from the thought and meditations
of the desert fathers and mothers—
those ascetics who in the third century
withdrew into the Egyptian and Palestinian and Syrian deserts.

Pride is typically mentioned as the first sin—
the original, foundational, deadliest sin.
The seven deadly sins, as mentioned,
are sometimes called the cardinal vices
because all sins (supposedly) can be traced back to these seven.
Some say all of the seven can be traced back to pride.

But there’s more nuance to this conversation than that.
For at the same time, there is so much
of which we are justly, appropriately, legitimately, justifiably proud—right?

Each and every one of you is uniquely gifted
and I pray you will come to know both the joy and the pride
of fulfilling your potential and finding your calling.
I hope you are all proud of who you are,
of what you have accomplished and of what you have yet to accomplish.
I hope you are all proud of our children and youth—
of who and how they are
of what they are accomplishing
and of what they will accomplish.
I pray not only for all of us to have the drive
to be our absolute best—
to do what no one else can do,
but to also celebrate who we are
in our blessed uniqueness.
That’s pride.

In 2002 and 2003 the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press
asked seven noted writers, scholars, and critics to consider the seven deadly sins.
They asked Michael Eric Dyson to address pride.
Michael Eric Dyson is Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University,
and was ordained a baptist preacher at 19 years of age.
I read his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
a few years ago. An almost unbearably hard book to read, but so important.
Neal Conan interviewed him on Talk of the Nation
about pride and quoted from that book:
“Thinking too highly of yourself is a sin.
Thinking well of God and others,
and therefore, of yourself, is a sacrament.”

I have found that the sins are often listed
in conjunction with a supposed antidote,
and humility is often offered as the antidote to pride.
Again, a necessary nuance.
We’ve talked before about the nuance of humility—
that it’s about knowing your place—
your place within community and within the world and before God,
but that it is absolutely not about not being your absolute best.

There is a pride out of knowing your place
that is more related to an appropriately healthy humility,
and a pride out of not being sure of your place
that is more related to the fear that stems from insecurity.
It’s vital to know the difference.
There is a pride that is strong, and a pride that is weak.
There is a pride that is a virtue and a pride that is a sin—
a deadly sin—many say the deadliest sin.

Everyone with me so far?
Because we’re going to switch gears now—
rather abruptly!

When I was thinking about the seven deadly sins
and Gandhi’s seven societal sins,
I associated pride with science without humanity,
and that famous line from the movie Jurassic Park:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could,
they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
When I was thinking about Scripture to go along with that,
I thought of Isaiah.

We’ve noted before the rather precarious geo-political location of ancient Israel—
a small country plopped right down there between the world superpowers
to their south and north and east and west—
plopped on the main north south trade routes—
the main north south military routes.
We’ve noted before the strategic alliances the two kingdoms make
Israel and Judah, the northern kingdom and the southern,
to protect themselves—
aligning themselves with Egypt and Assyria.
In our brief OT text today, Isaiah cautions Judah (the southern kingdom)
against an alliance with Egypt in face of the Assyrian threat.
Assyria was a legitimate threat—
the imperial power that defeated—
that destroyed the northern kingdom
now to Judah’s immediate north—neighboring north.

But Isaiah is explicit.
Do not place your trust in military alliances.
Do not place your trust in military technology.
Do not place your trust in military strategy.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann
commenting specifically on this text speaks,
as he so often does, directly to us today—
which is a neat trick
speaking specifically about this ancient text …
“The prophetic oracle, in context, shrewdly understands the linkage
of military mesmerization and religious self-deception,
and calls for a complete reorientation of policy”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998] 251).

No one is denying the geopolitical realities.
Nor the psychological realities,
and the Greek word psyche from which we get psychology
meant breath, spirit, soul.
There is a spiritual reality at play here too.

“Judah must reverse course,” says Brueggemann of Isaiah’s word,
“abandon its reliance on Egypt and its devotion to military might as a mode of security.
The summons to repent is insistent and massive.
It is a call that Judah must completely redefine
its genuine source of security and well-being” (Brueggmann, 251).

We’re switching gears again.
At the beginning of each theology class I’ve taught—
which is not a lot—three,
but at the beginning of each one,
I’ve introduced the idea of an implicit theology.
Perhaps not what you say, but out of which you live your life.
To introduce that I refer to the first year college introduction to literature English class
in which the professor asks each student for the two books most important to them.
Says the one student, “My family’s cookbook and my family’s checkbook.”
And we talk about how our checkbooks and our budgets represent moral documents, and how, regardless of what the president says, budgets matter.

Our country’s 2020 defense budget is almost $740 billion—
which represents an increase of $20 billion from last year.
That is not counting 25 billion dollars in the Department of Energy
for nuclear weapons.
That is not counting almost 174 billion dollars in what’s called
the Overseas Contingency Operations Account.
That’s not counting 215 billion dollars in Veteran’s Affairs,
almost 70 billion dollars in Homeland Security
and 80 billion dollars for intelligence—
all of which adds up to one and a quarter trillion dollars.

Now I am not one to dismiss the need for a military budget in our kind of world.
But, you’ve heard this before, I’m sure:
our defense budget is more than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia,
the United Kingdom, and Germany’s combined.
I do question that.
The Pentagon has failed its audit two years in a row—
can’t or won’t account for 21 trillion dollars
that cannot be traced, documented, or explained
from the years between 1998 and 2015.

And I cannot tell you how sick and tired I am
of hearing so very little relevant, meaningful, public discourse
from politicians and religious leaders
about whether or not we can or should afford to go to war—
whether we can or should afford that drone strike against the so-called high value target—by this administration or the last one—
conversations that never come up when it comes to war,
but is all we hear about when it comes to social programs
designed to help specifically those people
for whom God tells us we are particularly responsible.
Then that’s all we talk about.

“Judah must completely redefine
its genuine source of security and well-being”
says Brueggemann says Isaiah.
That’s the Bible. That’s our sacred text.
And preachers can do interpretive gymnastics all they want.
That’s pretty clear.
Who do we become if most of our discretionary income as a country
goes to military ends?
How does that shape who we are?
What does that say about who we are?

We’ve been twisting Gandhi into an inversion of itself
to name some of our systemic sins.
Today’s inversion would ask us to consider not just the sin
of science without humanity,
but the sin of humanity without science—
the sin of not using our brains—
of rejecting what research and analysis can teach us—
how it can guide us in decision making—
policy making—priority setting.
To ignore scientific evidence is as much of a sin against humanity
as is using technology without giving careful thought
to what is humane.

It really is the two kinds of pride, isn’t it?
The pride that is really fear and thinks all it needs is might—
the pride that is afraid of what is other and new and different.
And the pride that is the drive to grow and learn and improve.
The sin of pride and the virtue of pride.

Our prophetic text seems to state
that God will act against those who trust in military technology.
That is a way of talking about God
designed to protect a sense of God’s power—
of God in control,
which seems counter-intuitive to me.
You know this. I’ve said it before.
God is not in control.
I mean we claim God is in conversation and relationship with us,
and if God is control, that cheapens every affirmation I just made
about conversation and relationship.
Who among you would dare speak of control in their most significant relationships?
If God is in conversation and relationship with us, God is not in control.
But at the same time, I have no doubt that the decision
to fundamentally trust in military strategy
versus fundamentally trusting in God
will fundamentally shape those who do the trusting.
I do not believe God will destroy someone
who places their trust in—who gives their allegiance to power,
but who someone becomes in making that allegiance
destroys what is godly.

In the ancient sacred songs of the people of faith,
as recorded in the book of Psalms, we read
“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses
(the military technology of the day, right?),
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God
(Psalm 20:7).

There you have it—pride and technology—
pride and power,
and pride and God—
pride in humility—in the right order to creation—
set before you this and every day.
Choose life and life more abundant.

We’re switching gears one last time!
I found some statistics. I tried to double check them—
because that’s what you need to do these days!
Back in 2000, Google processed 14 billion searches a year
or 32.8 million searches a day.
By 2010, that number had risen to over a billion searches a day.
1.2 trillion searches in 2012—3.2 billion a day.
Last year Internet Live Stats estimated Google processed over
63,000 searches a second, around 5.5 billion searches a day—
around two trillion last year.

Starting in 2010 Google started putting out a year end search video
early in the new year for the previous year
offering a summary of what was most searched in that particular year
based on Google search, Google news and YouTube.
So for last year:

So if I may be so bold as to summarize that summary:

We have an innate sense of who our heroes are—
of what is heroic,
and we are so very proud
of those who drive themselves to be their best—
who accomplish things so many of us can only dream about—
who are so impressive—
physically, mentally—emotionally.
But what makes me a little teary, watching this video,
are the heroes who have a sense of how we’re in this together—
a sense of the value of relationship—
not just with loved ones but with anyone—everyone—
who have a sense of what is good and what is right.
And when they act on this,
it’s powerful and beautiful,
and they often seem a bit stunned by the attention.
We just did what we had to do.
We just did what was right—
not to be proud—not to get to boast—not to take credit for—
not for extrinsic reasons but for something deeply intrinsic.
We know.
Deep down we know.

We know building people up is heroic.
We know caring about the vulnerable is heroic.
We know that meeting needs is heroic.

So go do what’s right.
It matters what’s right,
and deep down we know—
we know what’s right; we know what’s needed,
and living life for something bigger than ourselves is the hero’s journey.
It is not mean.
It is not fake.
It is not manipulative.
It is not exploitive.
It is not petty.
It is not in control.
It is in love.
That is the measure of a good day—of a good life—
of which to be so very appropriately proud.
For the love of God, my friends, do not settle for anything less.

the seven deadly sins, ii.

2 Samuel 11
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ 4So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’
6 So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ 11Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ 12Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15In the letter he wrote, ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’ 16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. 18Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; 19and he instructed the messenger, ‘When you have finished telling the king all the news about the fighting, 20then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, “Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal? Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?” then you shall say, “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.” ’
22 So the messenger went, and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell. 23The messenger said to David, ‘The men gained an advantage over us, and came out against us in the field; but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. 24Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall; some of the king’s servants are dead; and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.’ 25David said to the messenger, ‘Thus you shall say to Joab, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it.” And encourage him.’
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord ….

It is a very dangerous thing for me
as a white man—
a middle-aged white man—
to say anything about lust
that might in any way come across as an excuse—
a justification
for abusive behavior.

Nothing excuses or justifies
treating another person as an object.
Nothing excuses or justifies overlooking the wholeness of a person.
Nothing excuses or justifies acting as if a person
doesn’t have their own desires and needs—
as if the way we treat others does not have deep and lasting consequences.
Nothing excuses or justifies using power to strip another person of their dignity.
Pleasure without conscience.
Is that pretty clear?
And yet we’re all part of that all the time.

Cameron Russell has been a Victoria’s Secret Model
and has walked for Versace and Chanel,
posed for Vogue,
been the face of Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co.
She knows something about being objectified.
It goes with the territory.

In a 2012 TED talk that’s been viewed over 30 million times,
she shows side by side pictures (it’s fascinating) and comments,
“This is what I looked like with my grandma
just a few months earlier.
Here’s me on the same day as this shoot.
My friend got to come. Here’s me at a slumber party
a few days before I shot French Vogue.
Here’s me on the soccer team and in V Magazine.
And here’s me today. And I hope what you’re seeing
is that these pictures [the modeling pictures] are not pictures of me.
They are constructions, and they are constructions
by a group of professionals, by hairstylists and makeup artists
and photographers and stylists and all of their assistants
and pre-production and post-production,
and they build this. That’s not me”
They build this. That is not me.
The language of objects.

And the language of our economy—
the assumptions and presuppositions endemic to our culture.
We all know sex sells.
This deadly sin of lust—this cardinal vice—is profitable.
So we turn a blind eye to the leering eyes and the dead eyes of those who know they’re being leered at.

Lust is not the only profitable sin.
Envy is the basis of most marketing and entirely too much social media,
but we’re not talking about that today.
It is a terrible theological observation and insight though:
sinfulness is consistently overlooked for money—for greed—
but we’re not talking about that today either.

We are those, however, who should be those pointing out to our children—
to our youth—to each other—
these constructs—these constructions
in our magazines.
We should rigorously be pointing out
how much masquerading as real is fake.
That’s not always easy or comfortable.
I remember a sexologist once telling me,
“If you come across your child watching porn
consider sitting down and watching with them—
making them stay there as you watch it with them
and point out to them everything that’s fake.”
Make you feel queasy?
But if you keep thinking about it for a while,
doesn’t it make a kind of profound sense?

The church has failed our children by in large
by being unwilling to talk explicitly about sex.
We’re pretty good at condemning pleasure without conscience,
but we don’t say too much about how in good conscience—
in relationship and commitment,
sex brings great pleasure as God’s good gift.

Too much we let the world spin its fantasies
and market them as what’s real
because we’re simply too embarrassed to be honest.

Part of our job as parents though—
our calling as followers of God in the way of Jesus
is a persistent questioning of—
confronting—rejecting—so much of the status quo
so much that is constructed and fake and one-dimensional.

It is our sacred calling
not to allow fake posing as real to go unnamed and unconfronted.

King David’s not himself in our text today—
or he’s not who he used to be.
for in the spring of the year, we read,
when kings go out to battle,
David sent Joab and his servants and all Israel against the Ammonites,
but David remained at Jerusalem.

He used to be at the forefront of the fighting—
so much so, we remember, that he would get all the credit.
Just back in chapter eight, we read
that David defeated the Philistines (2 Samuel 8:1),
and David defeated Moab (2 Samuel 8:2),
and David defeated Hadadezer (2 Samuel 8:3),
and the Arameans (2 Samuel 8:5), and the Edomites (2 Samuel 8:13).
I mean aren’t you just a little bit suspicious
when you read David killed eighteen thousand Edomites?
What did he cure cancer too?

So what has changed?
It may be that David has changed—
no longer in his prime.
Maybe a medical condition affecting his legs—an old war injury.
Maybe he had to stay in Jerusalem.
Maybe he was, in fact, encouraged to stay in Jerusalem.
Maybe he was more important in Jerusalem now as king and symbol
than to be risked on the front lines.
And maybe it started back in chapter ten
where we read that Joab led the fighting
against the Ammonites and the Arameans,
and David didn’t even appear until the end (2 Samuel 10:17-18)—
until after the enemy was actually said to be defeated (2 Samuel 10:15).
Had to have been hard—relegated to the sidelines.

And if you have always received external validation—
validation for your good looks—
validation for what you’ve done—
what happens when you lose those looks?
what happens when you can’t do such deeds anymore?

Again, not excusing anything. Just observing—
and finding a word for us all.
Growing up—maturity—is, in part, for all of us,
the movement away from purely external validation.
We admire—our culture admires, as David’s did,
the external victories, the obviously impressive.
And we need to cultivate a greater appreciation—
we, as the people of God, need to cultivate a greater appreciation
of the more subtle, the less obvious victories—
the work of realizing and accepting the importance of every individual—
of administering justice and equity to all people.
And as we work to become more mature,
maybe our so very immature culture can too.

Awakening in the late afternoon, we read
(and what’s up with that? indolence? or bed-ridden?)—
awakening late in the afternoon,
walking on his roof, David saw a woman bathing,
and she was very beautiful.

The immediacy of such situations can short circuit thinking—
bypass perspective and priorities and beliefs and standards.
Lust can feel right. It feels important. It feels good
and natural and thus justified.
Everyone hear that?
Just because if feels right, does not make it so—
especially perhaps when it comes to lust.
And lust for what?: a fantasy of what sex might be,
a fantasy of what more money might be,
a lust for power—for control,
of forcing people to respond to you?

One servant said, “That is the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah.”
In the midst of objectification, the relational reminder:
she is in relationship with others; she is the heart of two families.
But David sent for her nonetheless,
and he lay with her.
This is wrong on so many levels.
This is sexual abuse; it is the abuse of power.
It is the betrayal of David’s anointing as king
and calling as shepherd.
But that’s why this has to be a David story—
a story of the hero—of the man after God’s own heart.
And there is no excuse—no justification.
That needs to be the unequivocal voice of the church.
when power (personal, political, or ecclesial) is abused.
It is critical for us as followers of God in the way of Jesus
to prophetically condemn abuse.

Our story’s even worse than we supposed
as we remember, she was in the bath purifying herself.
She was cleansing herself in obedience to the laws of God.
David saw her in an expression of her faithfulness
and took her as an expression of his own faithlessness,
and as she was cleansing herself,
in accordance with the law after her period,
she was at the time most likely to conceive, and she did.
And she who had been sent for—
she who had been the one unknowingly spied upon,
brought before the king and taken,
she who had been passive before the power of the king—
acted upon—now takes the initiative
and sends word to the king, “I’m pregnant.”

David, in his fear, and in his arrogance—
attempts to continue to be in control of people and consequences.
He sends for Uriah, her husband, one of his elite fighters.
He sends for Uriah, just as he had sent for Uriah’s wife,
and asks for an update from the battlelines.
We lose it in translation.
In Hebrew David asks about the peace of Joab,
the peace of the army and the peace of the war—
three repetitions in Hebrew of the word “shalom”—
David asking about what he is in the very process of undoing.
Sin undoes shalom.

David tells Uriah to go home and to wash his feet. Uh hm.
You know what that means, right?
Go home and sleep with your wife,
so when she says she’s pregnant,
everyone will think the child is yours.
But Uriah thinks of the suffering of his fellow citizens,
the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers,
and proclaims it isn’t right for me to take advantage
and to enjoy what they can’t.
As you live, as your soul lives, I will not.
Of course, we’re now wondering about the state of the life of David’s soul, aren’t we?
David’s first attempt to cover up fails in face of Uriah’s honor.

David commands Uriah to stick around another day
and gets him drunk and tries to send him home again,
but he just wouldn’t go home and wash his feet!
David’s second attempt to cover up fails too.

Things continue to get worse.
David asserts his authority—his power, again abusively,
and has Uriah himself take the message to Joab back on the battlefield—
the message to have Uriah sent into the worst of the fighting
and to withdraw the other troops so Uriah would be killed.

David inserted himself in Uriah’s place with Bathsheba,
and then placed Uriah in what had been David’s place—
at the forefront of the fighting.
Uriah doesn’t survive. He’s no David.
But neither is David—not in this story—
even as he now thinks his third attempt at a cover up succeeded.
And that’s just it:
we can’t ever not remember that this is David.
Shepherd boy David. Hero David. Beloved of God David.
Greatest king of Israel David.
No excuses. No justification.
But some sense of cognitive dissonance
in the unfolding of the greater truth of the man.
And so we continue to chew on this idea of sin—

sin as less an expression of self —
or the imposition of self —
of personality or tendency —
or even of evil — of wrong — of bad,
but rather the sad reflection
of a self missing some section
of itself.
To consider, for example, the seven deadly sins:
lust, for example, reflects
a deep longing for connection —
for a legitimacy of intimacy,
and greed, a need
to try and ply the emptiness inside
with enough of some stuff to fill it,
and gluttony’s just a particular way
of trying to fill that void
none of us can avoid.
Sloth is being overwhelmed at
and paralyzed by potential —
which then never becomes experiential,
and pride and wrath
put either too much on yourself
or on another—indicative
of a loss of balanced perspective
manifest in too much boasting or too much invective.
Envy reveals a lack of assurance or confidence
regardless of prominence or competence.

So what if we were to think of sin as emerging
not from the bad someone is or even does,
but from their suffering and pain —
their grief and deep uncertainty.
What if a sinner is an empty person
we’re tempted to fill with our own anger
not to have to face our own empty inside
from which we hide or through which we grow.
What if sin is so not supposed
to lead just to anger but also to empathy,
not just rejection, but also affection —
to see in another’s hell
the struggle we all know all too well.

Sin is supposed to constitute a challenge
to both the one who sins
and the follower of God in the way of Jesus,
and everyone wins only if no-one loses.
For the one, the sinner, sin is the challenge
not to excuse or justify behavior,
but to grow through experience.
For the other, the follower of God,
the challenge of sin is not to excuse or justify
any sense of separation—the feeling of being
any different than—
to always remember,
“That is something I would could do too.”

What if sins are signs pointing to that
for which we were created
that we’re missing.

The Greek word for sin, you remember,
comes from a verb meaning to miss the target.

There is supposed to be a deep pleasure
integral to living out our conscience in relationship and commitment,
and a terrible loss to pleasure without principle.

It’s not excuse the sin.
Heaven forbid.
It is critical for us as followers of God in the way of Jesus
to prophetically condemn.
It’s not the cliché hate the sin, love the sinner,
because I’m not even sure what that really means—
other than that it makes it all about them.
It’s not extenuating circumstances
(because extenuating implies justifying and condoning
and we’re not doing that),
but it is the discipline of seeing a more holistic context—
for the person who sins,
and the systems in which we all turn our blind eyes to sin,
and for the temptation to feel like we’re different than they are—
a more holistic context that includes
holding on to clear perspectives on what is unjust
on what is exploitive on what is abusive
but with love and grace for us all.

It’s as Bryan Stevenson,
the lawyer who wrote the book Just Mercy
(which you should read)—
now out as a movie (which you should see)—
it’s as Bryan Stevenson said,
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Have I been explicitly, crystal clear?
Because it is a very dangerous thing for me
as a white man
a middle-aged white man
to say anything about lust or sin
that might in any way come across as an excuse—
a justification
for abusive behavior.
But it is also a very dangerous thing for anyone
to set themselves up as judge
thinking themselves to be anything other than a sinner themselves.

May we walk the line
in the manner of the one
in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
full of truth and grace—
and never the one at the expense of the other.

the seven deadly sins, i.

1 Kings 21:1-24
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ 3But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, ‘I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.’ He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ 7His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’
15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’
20 Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; 22and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. 23Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” 24Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.’

When I mentioned to my wife
that we were doing an epiphany worship series on sin,
she paused and then asked, “Why?”
“Well,” I did not say, “you were the one to suggest it.”
“Not for Epiphany,” I imagined her responding.
To return to the conversation we actually did have,
she said she associated sin more with a Lenten theme.
Fair enough.

As we were brainstorming worship possibilities last summer though,
it was she who suggested the seven deadly sins—
which made me think of Gandhi’s seven deadly societal sins—
which brought me to our twist on those—which we’ll get to.

It was Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
who spoke many years ago now at Preachers’ Camp
of Epiphany as a season of gradually dialing up the light.
Does awareness of deadly sins, I wondered,
allow us to—help us—dial up the light?

So some initial thoughts on sin. Fun, huh?
To get some thoughts on sin out on the table,
I’m going to read you an excerpt from a play with which I’m playing.
I do use a form of rhyme scheme
to acknowledge up front the illusion of drama
in order within what is then acknowledged as artifice
to be as real as possible.

It only recently struck me,
that in all our conversations,
with all their important, theological implications,
we’ve never really talked about sin.

Interestingly true. You begin.

Okay. Well, in many if not most
traditional Christian
faith affirmations,
sin is the crime;
judgment the verdict, the punishment,
the sentence, the time.
So in those traditional Christian
faith affirmations,
sin becomes the explanation
for the circumstances we hate.

Which feels like it should be
more up for debate:
sin as the motivation
for God’s retaliation
against what we did wrong
that we all along
have also called judgment.

Makes of God, whom we call forgiving,
someone who, in a weird way,
is grace outliving.

Ha! Eternity
gives God the opportunity
to outlast who we claim God to be.
Ah the irony
in the teaching of the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
who said forgiving seventy times seven
was the way to heaven
unless you’re God apparently on judgment day
and you damn people to hell —
making of God an unsurpassed
I am that I am until I am not —
that’s an affirmation
with consequence fraught.

But. When it comes to tradition,
it probably comes
as no surprise to you
my lack of inhibition
to making an addition or two.

Interestingly true!
Please do
go on.

Alright, so first,
sin is supposed to be confessional
not judgmental,
which makes it both harder
and more relevant —
which is often the elephant
in the room
given the frequency with which
sin is directed toward them
from which focus stem
all kinds of problematic issues —
all from such terrible misuses of sin —
which, secondly, in my view
is only partially what we do —
and also partially what we’re part of
that we condone
that then owns us —
and that is its own consequence —
a shallowness —
a disconnectedness —

a wretchedness.

KATE, nodding
Not divine retribution.
That’s an intentionally misleading
confusion —
in the substitution
by the institution
of control
for the goal
of transformation.


And sin . . .


like circumstance, I guess . . .
is supposed to represent
a thin place —
a means of grace,
not the weight
that determines our fate.

That almost sounds like you think sin
should be helpful —
for the self full
of a desire to grow.
You know,
less frightful
than insightful.

Precisely. Befriend your sin,
and love you as a sinner.
Sports teaches us
that’s how you become a winner —
allowing what you’re not good at
to focus your workout —
inwardly in this case, on yourself,
not outwardly on anyone else,
and not in condemnation,
but in reflection
ever seeking illumination —
contemplation leading to the selection of change — or growth —
or both.

Sin is part of the conversation
about circumstance,
but as a future-oriented way
through it
not as a past explanation for it.

And in such a view,
sin is not to blame —
not meant to shame —
supposed to offer
a transparency
for those in errancy —

a transparency to possibility
through responsibility —
the movement from culpability
to capability.

But according to too many
sin becomes this catch-22,
and it’s a trap
I still fall into too —
in which sin is no longer what we do —
the choices we make,
the actions we take,
but some demonic power
that overtakes us
that we cannot resist
that insists
we necessarily fall short
of God’s expectations,
and sin becomes an inevitability
to blame
instead of a tendency to tame.

And so then,
in terms of us and them,
when we fall short,
it’s our faith we contort
sin to blame.
But when they fall short,
we excoriate them in shame,
and put them to blame.

And there’s the true demonic power
at work
that in our own theology does lurk:
sin creating not just
the opportunity for
but the tendency to
excuse us and blame them.

I tell you though,
it’s hard to get traction
for a theological view of sin
without a faction
you can blame.
That’s too often how most
play the religious game.

Sin is supposed to be like
one of those fitness apps
into which your caloric intake
is added (honestly)
and the number of calories you burn
is not padded (dishonestly)
and the more honestly you see
and enter your information
the better you can plan
for your health reformation.

I’m not saying a focus
on individual morality
is not an important priority —
powerfully illuminating
and challenging and necessary.
Just saying that’s not so much
that about which
the prophets of old
were caring.

To make sin just a matter of morality
is to shrink it
to I need to do better
or more likely you need to do better
instead of thinking we are at fault here
and need to make changes

I wanted to talk about sin without being negative—
contextualize sin without having it be a downer—
certainly without being judgy—
considering sin as a signpost to greater grace and more light,
and within such a framework consider the seven deadly sins,
also known as the cardinal sins
or the capital vices (which I always thought were in DC!)
which are not ever listed together in the Bible.
They are actually traced back to a fourth-century monk
who made a list of eight in Greek,
revised and translated into Latin,
formalized by Pope Gregory I in 590 CE
after he combined a couple and added another to get seven.

They were incorporated into Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
(though he used the term capital vices—
because he sees every other sin coming from these seven).
They were taken for granted by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales,
by Dante in the Divine Comedy,
and by Billy Graham, who did a study of them
through a series of sermons on the radio
that was turned into a book.

Gandhi’s list of seven social sins or societal sins
goes back to October of 1925,
when he published the list in his weekly newsletter.
But it actually goes farther back to March of that year
when it was preached at Westminster Abbey
by Frederick Lewis Donaldson, an Anglican priest.

The first of Gandhi’s societal sins we consider is wealth without work.
Maybe you, like I, think of criminals,
whose goal is to take advantage of the work and wealth of others.
I do also think of those born rich,
and I know it’s not their fault,
and some of them, I’m sure, are admirable people,
and some of whom are spoiled rotten
by having had wealth handed to them and never having had to work.
I think of those who exploit the work of others
and how much that is a part of the economic system that seems to be.
King Ahab of Samaria in our Scripture reading this morning
fits all of those categories.

So thinking of wealth without work
and thinking of the seven traditional sins,
sloth is the traditional sin that I picked
to go with Gandhi’s wealth without work.
Sloth is the only one of the seven sins
Dante does not describe as a perversion or corruption
of a good gift of God.

Sloth is traditionally associated with laziness.
According to Merriam-Webster
the primary definition of sloth is a disinclination to action or labor.
Synonyms include indolence, idleness, inertia, shiftlessness.

Derived in part from the Latin, acedia, meaning without care,
sloth is also a not caring—a whatever kind of attitude—
an apathy.
It’s also a being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis—
by to do lists bigger than can be accomplished in a day, or week or month—
by news cycles that never stop.
It is a restlessness.
And it is also a caring more about the good than the better
and more about the better than the best.
That’s hard.

So we have the traditional sin, sloth.
We have Gandhi (or Douglas’) sin of wealth without work.
Then there’s our twist
I suggest that sin is not just wealth without work,
but also the inversion of work without wealth.

Notice that Gandhi and the traditional sin
are more a matter of what we might call morality—
focused on the individual
vs/ the inversion that seems more systemic—
more a matter of justice.
and as easy as it is to match Gandhi’s sin
with several of the classic seven deadly sins,
(I chose sloth. You can make a case for greed),
the inversion is harder to match up
which is why in the sermon title there is a question mark there.
Work without wealth.
The bias toward personal morality is deep seated
in both Scripture and tradition,
and too often gives systemic sin an out—
a get out of jail free card.

Within the rhetoric of politics
some blame the poor for not working hard.
I’m sure there are some that don’t.
There are plenty who work harder than most people I know—
multiple jobs—
and just can’t catch a break:
work work work with no wealth.
There’s the sin.
Talking points identify either a positive or negative extreme
and then pretend the truth
does not include what is typically the majority in the middle.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in The Sunday Review of The New York Times in an excerpt from their book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.
It is a terrifying read, but it is not despairing.
“Americans bought into a misconceived “personal responsibility” narrative that blamed people for being poor. It’s true, of course, that personal responsibility matters: People we spoke to often acknowledged engaging in self-destructive behaviors. But when you can predict wretched outcomes based on the ZIP code where a child is born, the problem is not bad choices the infant is making. If we’re going to obsess about personal responsibility, let’s also have a conversation about social responsibility.

We Americans are locked in political combat and focused on President Trump, but there is a cancer gnawing ta the nation that predates Trump and is larger than him. Suicides are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids .…

We have deep structural problems that have been a half century in the making, under both political parties, and that are often transmitted from generation to generation. Only in America has life expectancy now fallen three years in a row, for the first time in a century, because of ‘deaths of despair.’

The stock market is near record highs, but working class Americans (often defined as those without college degrees) continue to struggle. If you’re only a high school graduate, or worse, a dropout, work no longer pays. If the federal minimum wage in 1968 had kept up with inflation and productivity, it would be $22 an hour. Instead, it’s $7.25.

‘I’m a capitalist, and even I think capitalism is broken,’ says Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedgefund”

It’s a bit tricky preaching the prophets because we are not a theocracy.
We look at the prophetic writings of a theocracy as our sacred texts
and appropriately say the prophets focused on national sins—
what I might call systemic sins—societal sins.
It was the country’s responsibility, they said—the prophets—
to guard against economic injustice:
against exploitation of the poor.
It is the country’s responsibility
to care for the widows and the orphans
and the aliens and the refugees.
In our non-theocracy,
amidst our own traditional value of the separation of church and state,
what are we to do with such explicitly political prophecy—
such explicitly worded speaking truth to political power?

We have too many politicians who want to claim God and the Bible
without knowing what they’re about—
certainly without living into it.
And while we have too many church leaders and people
who also don’t seem to know much of what the Bible’s about,
there are also entirely too many
who do know but don’t seem to care.

I invite you today and throughout this worship series
to consider yourself honestly—
to consider your sins—
not to weigh yourself down,
not to get lost in guilt and shame,
not to hear anyone blaming you,
but to consider sin as a signpost.
Here’s where such behavior—
here are where such priorities lead.
They lead to being this kind of a person.
They lead to this kind of a culture.
Is that anything I want anything to do with?
Because there are other signposts pointing in other directions.

To look at the larger picture,
there’s a whole lot of sloth—
an unwillingness to engage in the work
of making us better.
In ancient Israel you could not separate
the call of the people to live into the image of God
and the call for God’s people as a country to live into the image of God.
We do ourselves and we do our country no favors
when we too easily dismiss that challenge.

I have not read Kristof and WuDunn’s book.
I commend to you this article.
It’s hard, but again it’s not despairing.
They say we can change.
We can make different choices.
But if we don’t intentionally do that—
if we’re slothful …
do you like where we’re headed?
There are good options.
There are signposts pointing to hope and health
and transformation and possibility.
Those are the ones to choose
May it be so.

stranger things: the gate

Mark 6:1-13
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 123)
To be Sung in Order to Get Back Up
From down here, I look up to You, God above.
That’s the image, isn’t it?
As day laborers look up to the boss who hired them,

as immigrants and refugees look up to the judge,
as the young black man looks up to the policeman,
as the woman looks up to the men making more than she does,

so our eyes look to You, O God, until we know divine mercy.
Have such mercy upon us, our God, have such mercy.
For we have had more than enough of the contempt.
Our souls overflow with the scorn of the arrogant—
with the sense of being looked down upon
by those we have to look up to.

Have mercy upon us, God above,
that we would know You here below. Mercy!
That we would know
You have deemed us worthy
of Your presence with us face to face.

Pastoral Prayer
Our God,
we are among those in one of Your communities of faith
who are taught to care for each other—
to take joy with those enjoying
and to weep with those in grief.
We are those taught to care for more
than just each other though—
commanded indeed, to love our neighbors and our enemies—
to provide for the least of these—
those without food and shelter and clothes—
those imprisoned.
We are those commanded to welcome the alien—
the refugee—
the ones who are different—
the ones who are left out.

We are those taught not to scapegoat—
to blame—
to crucify someone else for that
for which we are ourselves responsible.

We are those taught to be kind—
assured of love (both your love and the love of each other)
that we don’t need to tear down others
to feel good about ourselves—
don’t need constant attention
to be reassured of the value of our being.

We are those taught to be honest—
our yeses yeses, our no’s no’s.
That’s what Jesus said he expected of us.
We are those taught respect—
those who are to model grace.

We are those to whom you entrusted your creation.
We are to be good stewards
of the mountains and seas,
the air,
the plants and animals.

We are those through whom
you seek to bless all peoples.

So guide us ever into the wisdom of your way
grant us the courage to risk your way—
to trust your way

that we might be points of light in the darkness
that the darkness cannot comprehend

This we pray in the name of your way made flesh
our light in the darkness
still alive—present among us—
even Jesus the Christ,

Jesus left that place, we read—Capernaum,
and came to his home town—Nazareth.
So begins one of my favorite Jesus stories.

On the sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue
(as was his custom),
and many who heard him were astounded
(again, not unusual).
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What is this wisdom that has been given to him?
What deeds of power are being done by his hands?”

Note the transition within their response
from “what is this wisdom?”
(that they were hearing for themselves)
to “what deeds of power are being done by his hands?”
(as the wisdom they heard firsthand
validated what they had heard
about Jesus’ deeds of power secondhand.)
So the first comment is about the wisdom they themselves heard.
The second comment is about deeds of power
they had heard about and were now prepared to accept.

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary
and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon,
and are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.

Again note,
it was not in disbelief that they turned on him—
taking offense at him.
It was rather, believing—
having heard the wisdom—
having accepted his power.

We, in our faith tradition and in our culture,
have prioritized believing over following.
But believing was never meant to be prioritized over following.
In fact, most of what we think believing connotes,
should be more associated with following.

Not only doesn’t it matter what we say we believe,
if we don’t follow,
it doesn’t matter what we actually do believe
if we don’t follow,
and if that’s true, then we have to entertain the possibility
that if you follow, it doesn’t matter what you believe.
Just think about it—
as the story asks us to.

Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor,
except in their home town, and among their own kin,
and in their own house.”

Up until now in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been identified
as the Son of God and the Holy One.
He has also acted in ways that identify him
as a proclaimer, a teacher, a healer, and a storyteller,
but here, for the first time, he self-identifies himself—
and self-identifies himself as a prophet,
which we know has nothing to do with foretelling some future,
and everything to do with speaking some truth.
And sometimes, most of us know this,
truth is hardest, maybe not to see, but to hear
from someone too close—
especially when it’s hard to hear—
(maybe when it’s been intentionally or customarily)
overlooked—even justified.

Who are you to point this out to us?
This that we don’t want to acknowledge.

We just got back from the beach,
and while out walking along the shore,
I noticed there were stretches of sand
where shells and shell shards seem to collect—
mounds of pieces of shells you wanted to walk around
if you were barefoot.
And usually, all those pieces merged into an indistinct mound,
but sometimes, amidst the indistinct, there would be a shape—
or a color, that stood out.

Two aspects of this gospel story stand out—
distinct—drawing attention.
Here’s the first:
And he could do no deed of power there.
That’s what it says.
Jesus could do no deeds of power.

Which warrants a quick refresher.
We’re five chapters into Mark’s gospel.
In those five chapters, Jesus has healed a man with an unclean spirit
in the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath (Mark 1: 21-28).
He healed many at Simon and Andrew’s house (Mark 1:29-34).
He went through Galilee proclaiming the message
and casting ut demons (Mark 1:39).
He healed a leper (Mark 1:40-42).
He healed a man paralyzed (Mark 2:3-12).
He healed the man with a withered hand
again on the sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).
He stilled a storm on the sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41).
He healed the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20).
He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead
and healed the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:21-43).
But in Nazareth, he could do no deeds of power.

Amidst all the expectations
and the celebration of who Jesus was and what all Jesus could do,
it says—the Bible says, Jesus could not do—
was unable to do—any miracles there.
For the Bible tells us so.

The first part of the story that stands out
was that Jesus could do no deeds of power there,
and the second is this:
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people—
and cured them!

He could do no deeds of power
except for the fact that he healed some people.
And he was amazed at their unbelief.
But it wasn’t unbelief, was it?
So what was it?
It was a lack of trust.

Most of what we associate with believing,
should be associated more with following.
And they wouldn’t follow him.

So he left.
Again, they didn’t follow.
Then he went about among the villages teaching.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two,

So, in the Bible, two by two …
makes you think of what?
The animals going onto the ark. Sure.
There’s even a song about it!
The animals entered the ark, two by two,
to preserve life through the flood.
Now the disciples go out, two by two,
to preserve the possibility of abundant life—
of life lived trusting grace—trusting love.

And Jesus gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
What does that mean?
It means if you trust love and grace,
you have authority over unclean spirits!

He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff;
no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;
but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

He ordered them to rely on others, in other words—
to not be independent and self-sufficient.
In our world, to be irresponsible.

He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house,
stay there until you leave the place.”

Now that’s called being mindfully present!
Don’t leave until you leave.
Be where you are.
We regularly interrupt the girls’ screen time
to tell them something like that.
“Hey! You’re here. Be here.
Here is unique and special, and you’re missing it.”
Too much of our experience (not just our youth and children’s)
has to do with not being present—
which is the opposite of every single wisdom tradition in the world.
Let me repeat that.
Our culture promotes and encourages not being present,
which is the opposite of every single wisdom tradition
in the history of the world.

“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,
as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet
as a testimony against them.”

Don’t argue.
Don’t try and convince someone they need to listen to you.
Don’t overtalk them—
trying to exceed them in volume
as if that makes you more right
instead of more of an ignoramus.
We have so many ignorami in our culture—
and so many of them in the church.

So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.
They cast out many demons,
and anointed with oil many who were sick
and cured them.

We make of Jesus curing the sick—
healing lepers and making the blind to see—
making the one paralyzed able to walk—
casting out demons …
we make of that miracles.
And we make of miracles (of the miraculous),
the specialness of Jesus.
But the disciples did all that.
All those deeds of power
that in Nazareth,
we found out
weren’t deeds of power—
because he could do no deeds of power there,
except he did heal people.

Counter to the tradition of identifying holiness
by separating it from the ordinary,
we have been contemplating holiness as wholeness—
as not separating parts of reality from other parts—
parts of life from other parts.
Our gospel story questions separating Jesus from us
by virtue of what he did that we don’t understand and can’t do—
haven’t experienced.
Our gospel story questions making believing in miracles
the measure by which we follow Jesus
when trusting Jesus with our lives
seems a more reliable indication.
Actually living love and grace.
The ordinary choice to trust grace—
to risk love—day by day
is more the miracle —more the holy—
than any amazing thing we consider an act of power.

From considering the Netflix TV series, Stranger Things,
we know that El opened a gate between dimensions
that let the monster into our world.
And we know that once that gate was open,
the upside down (the monstrous dimension) grew or spread—
from the gate—from the basement of Hawkin’s Lab—
under the fields—through those weird tunnels.

We noted how the boys
were playing their game which was a campaign
that was part of a larger story of a quest.
We noted how that campaign—that quest
became their life—
a story that was true.
And there was the very real risk
of being consumed by the darkness—
such risk.

And what Will came to see is that everything in our reality
was also in the upside down.
There was an alternate version of everything.
That’s not to say that everything is good in our world
and only bad in the upside down,
but that in the upside down,
it was all is subject to the ravenous hunger of the monstrous.
And while everything in the right side up is not good,
it’s not subsumed into someone else’s—
something else’s—

And in that world, as in ours,
in the upside down and the rightside up,
there is the light that overcomes the darkness—
the courage that confronts what’s dangerous—
the depth that acknowledges complexity—
the relationships that prompt action.

Here’s the thing.
If the upside down spreads and grows,
why wouldn’t the rightside up too?

There is the very real risk
in the world of Stranger Things
in our world of stranger things,
of being consumed by the darkness—
that come from consuming darkness—
opening yourself up even just a little—
being mean—
Such risk.

And there is the very real possibility
in the world of Stranger Things
in our world of stranger things,
of becoming a part of the light—
that comes from living light
opening yourself up even just a little—
being kind—
Such possibility.

There is the truth we proclaim
that mercy—
beauty …
they’re what transform reality—
transform people—
transform circumstances
by having transformed the people in the circumstances.
Not money.
Not power.

One of the books I read this past week
was by Laurie Frankel, called this is how it always is,
a beautiful book about a family in which the youngest son
grows up feeling like he’s really a girl—
and how her family loves her
through all the challenges that inevitably arise.
At the end of the novel, there was an author’s note that reads:
“[T[his book is an act of imagination,
an exercise in wish fulfillment,
because that is the other thing novelists do.
We imagine the world we hope for and endeavor,
with the greatest power we have, to bring that world into being.
[That’s what we do too, right? as followers of God]
I wish for my child, for all our children,
a world where they can be who they are and become their most loved,
blessed, appreciated selves. I’ve rewritten that sentence a dozen times,
and it never gets less cheesy,
I suppose because that’s the answer to the question.
THat’s what’s true. For my child, for all our children,
I want more options, more paths through the forest,
wider ranges of normal, and unconditional love.
Who doesn’t want that?
I know this book will be controversial, but honestly?
I keep forgetting why”
(Laurie Frankel, this is how it always is
[New York: Flatiron Books, 2017] 327).

More important than what you say you believe,
is whether you make the world a better place for children—
all children—
children separated from their parents—
children put in cages—
children used as threat—as deterrent—
as means to some end—any end—
children without adequate health care or food or education.
More important than what you say you believe—
more important than what you believe
is whether you work for more options—
whether you’re not threatened by wider ranges of normal—
whether you risk unconditional love
and the controversies
that make you forget why someone might think they are.

That’s following Jesus.
That’s trusting grace and risking love—
no matter what you do or don’t believe.

stranger things: the upside down


Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 107)
Be grateful all you who are being redeemed.
And as you are being gathered,
from north and south of us, and east and west—
as you are being gathered
into the truth, presence, and grace of God and God’s people,
give thanks for the goodness of God.

Many wander various wildernesses,
longing and looking for a better life
with and for their children—
hungry and thirsty—their souls fainting within them—

crying out to God in their despair.
And it is God who answers them
when they find others who will care for them—
be an oasis for them.
Let them then thank God for steadfast love—
for wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many are prisoner
to their own responsibilities, schedules, and priorities,
who work so hard—sacrifice so much,
and are yet invested in that
the returns of which do not fulfill.

It is God who offers them alternatives
to the miseries of “just the way things are.”
Let them then thank God for steadfast love
which breaks down walls and opens doors
in wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many in our culture are addicted
to substances and fashion and image and things—
phones and devices and “likes”—
to an easy escape from the work of being true.

And there are no easy answers to addiction.
There are no quick fixes.
But God’s desire is ever for health and wholeness
and the honesty and courage it takes to claim them.

Let them then thank God for steadfast love,
naming the commitment to work for healing and freedom,
God, in songs of joy
because of wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many work within chaos
(the chaos of business, politics, people).
Others are lost within the chaos of our systems.
But they all ride the very surface of chaos,
tossed by the winds and waves,
propelled this way and that
by the strength of the currents of the deep,

and can yet in the chaos,
turn to the one who creates within the chaos—
who brings order out of chaos.
Let them then thank God for steadfast love,
which maintains a vision of something else
through wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Remember, ours is the God of inversions—of surprise,
and much of what the world sees
as productive and profitable—desirable,
God sees as foolishness.

While in much of what the world sees as weak
and pitiful—foolish,
God sees strength and wisdom.
So those who hunger in our world for another way
gather and form community and seek to follow
ever more closely in the way of God
and grow in and through their living
the fruits of justice and grace.

To see this deep truth is to be glad,
and such gladness stops wickedness in its tracks.
For true wisdom is but the consistent consideration—
the persistent celebration—of steadfast love.

Pastoral Prayer
I don’t even know what to pray for.
So much seems to be going so wrong.
Too many people hurting.
Too many people being hurt.
And to be honest,
the implications of the affirmation
that You so love the world give me a headache.
The implications of Your working to redeem all creation
It’s such a big picture
for us who are such a small part in it.
And part of the problem, of course,
is that we can’t conceive of ourselves
as a small part of much of anything.

And to take ourselves out of the center
is utterly overwhelming.
How do we then consider
our care (or lack thereof) of the earth,
the way we walk right by our neighbors in their ditches—
often ditches we dug,
often suffering at the hands of bandits we’ve supported?
How do we consider our rejection of You
in our rejection of the least of these?
How do we consider the fact that we ignore
Your teachings on violence toward others,
Your warnings about money and riches—
pretty much Your teachings on anything
that that has to do with what we’re doing
as we focus, instead, on what they’re doing wrong?

So in Your gathering of us into Your presence—
in Your gathering of us into Your stories,
remind us to love each other.
Remind us of grace.
Remind us of the community for which we were created—
the community that transcends the limits we place on it—
the borders we draw, the walls we put up,
the so very local priorities we choose.
Teach us humility.
Leave us with a taste of more and beyond.
More possibility. More hope.
Beyond all we know and see.
In Jesus’ name.

On that day—that long day of stories by the sea—
on that day when evening had come …
which is interesting.
Because by Hebrew reckoning, a new day begins at sundown.
Y’all probably know you start Sabbath-keeping Friday at dusk
and end at sundown Saturday
So if it was evening that day,
it was the next day.
It was most specifically the transition time to the next day.

And Jesus said to the disciples,
“Let us go across to the other side.”

What does that mean?

Um, literally? They crossed the Sea of Galilee.
Presumably they were still up in the Capernaum area—
the northernmost part of the lake.
And they probably crossed not to the southern end,
but to the eastern shore,
for in fact, the gospel story goes on,
They came to the other side of the lake,
to the country of the Gerasenes.

And while we’re not absolutely sure who the Gerasenes were,
the cities of Gerasa and Gadara
(because in some of the stories it’s called the country of the Gadarenes—
compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8)
the cities of Gerasa and Gadara were both to the east of the Sea of Galilee—
part of the Decapolis, a grouping of ten Greco-Roman—Gentile cities—
more heavily influenced by the hellenist culture than the semitic one.

Now does that mean there weren’t any Jews
on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee? No.
Does that mean everything was different and foreign? No.
But it means there probably is something intended in the symbolism
of Jesus crossing from one side to the other.

And leaving the crowd behind,
they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.
What does that mean?
Well, it was an old Hebrew hymn, “Just As He Was!”
Just kidding!
It may simply mean the boat he was already on.
This day begins, you may remember,
with the narrator describing how
such a large crowd gathered around Jesus
that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there,
while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land (Mark 4:1).

And they headed out into deeper water—
headed out into the watery boundary area between
this shore and that one.
It’s another transition, isn’t it?
A spatial transition—geographic—
to go along with the temporal transition from one day to another—
the transition from light to dark.

Other boats were with him, we read.
Of course four of the disciples were fishermen,
so it’s possible they had more than one boat between them—
except when this one boat got to the other side,
nothing is said about not all the disciples being there.
Maybe there were other fishermen
who seized the opportunity to remain with Jesus.
In any case, there’s a wider community.
As you may know, the boat was widely accepted
as a symbol of the ancient church,
so what we have here is a local association.

A great gale arose,
and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.
We’re in a symbol for the church that’s being filled with water.
Too much of a stretch to suggest baptismal imagery?!
Baptism too, of course, a passage between—a transition.
We are baptized into death to be raised to newness of life.

Now the other boats aren’t mentioned.
In fact, they’re not mentioned again at all.
Maybe the storm separated them all.
Maybe each church goes through significant transitions on its own!
And when boats are being tossed around,
it’s best not to have a bunch together in close proximity.

What’s happened in the story though,
with water representing chaos in Hebrew thought and writing,
is the chaos factor has been upped.

When you cross to the other side—
when you cross the border—
when you go from one way of doing things to another—
when you go from where they speak this language
to where they speak that one
(even if it’s the same language, you understand what I’m saying?)—
when you go from these traditions to those—
these beliefs to those—
these people in charge to those—
when you leave behind what was and embrace what’s to be,
it can get a little chaotic
as you venture out into the unknown—
out into what’s legitimately scary.

But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.
The storm didn’t bother him a bit.
He was sound asleep—reclined—
hovering, as it were, over the surface of the deep.

There are multiple levels of possible meaning here—
or of association.
He was really, really tired and there was nothing more to it.
He was completely out.
Or, he trusted his disciples who were fishermen—
who knew the water, knew its moods, knew their boat.
Or he trusted God.
And there are undeniable parallels to the story of Jonah
another prophet to the gentiles—
another Jew who crossed to the other side—
who was asleep in a boat during a storm—
a storm that ended up being miraculously calmed.
And it’s also true, that in Hebrew thought and writing,
the absence of God in the chaos of history
was often depicted as God being asleep
(Psalms 35:23; 44:23-24; Isaiah 51:9a).
Or at a completely different level—at that symbolic level,
crossing what scared so many, didn’t scare him.
He had a vision of wholeness
that undermined the fear of the other and of otherness.
I trust you know me well enough to know
I’m not suggesting there’s one answer.
These associations are all there,
and they’re all important.

The disciples woke Jesus up and said to him,
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

That’s fairly blunt phrasing—aggressive and rude—
so much so that Matthew and Luke
both make the disciples a little more respectful—
clean up the story a bit.
But as blunt as the phrasing is,
it’s not, “Wake up! It’s getting dangerous out here.
We need to figure out what we’re going to do—
how we’re going to get out of this.”
No. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
And they address him as “Teacher”—
as if this were a lesson,
not as “Master”—the one in charge.

Now, true confession, I’d’ve been scared too.
If fishermen were afraid on the Sea of Galilee, I would have been too.
They had to have known what they were dealing with.
There was obviously good reason to be afraid.
But honestly, here’s where the story gets iffy for me.
Because I’ve been around experts in a crisis.
They tend not to panic.
They tend to swing into action.
They know what to do, and they do it—
even if it ends up not being enough.

Well, as the story is told, Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind.
It’s the same word he uses to rebuke the man possessed with an unclean spirit.
And he said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
Another command paralleling the silencing of the man with the unclean spirit,
and the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

We totally miss it in our translation.
The word translated “dead” (“dead calm”) is the same word
earlier translated “heavy”—the “heavy” gale.
It’s an absolute. The best translation would be:
The great storm on the sea becomes the great calm of the sea.

It’s called that in both Old and New Testaments, by the way—the sea,
even though the Sea of Galilee is not a sea.
Technically, it’s a lake—freshwater surrounded by land.
A sea refers to a saltwater body, connected to the great oceans.
The sea can even refer to the world ocean—
the waters that covered the earth over which hovered the Spirit of God—
as if it’s such depths reached in Galilee—
that level of primordial chaos—
in which sense, Jesus and his disciples—Jesus and the church
cross all borders into all lands in the creation of a new world
and are not afraid—or aren’t supposed to be.
In that sense, it’s a re-creation story,
and there was evening and this day became the next,
and it was good.
They were crossing from one side to the other,
and order was brought out of chaos.

And Jesus said to the disciples,
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Seriously? Jesus contributed to lousy theology?
If you have enough faith, you too,
can bring great calm to the great chaos?
Faith isn’t going to keep anyone safe in the storm.
I’ve been through too much. Seen too much.
Been with people through too much.
Life brings storms from which no faith will protect you.

And the disciples were filled with great awe.
Now see, that’s just downright misleading.
That’s just wrong!
That’s translators cleaning up the story again!
The Greek, literally, has nothing to do with awe.
The text literally reads they “feared a great fear.”
Little different from they were filled with great awe, don’t you think?

Notice as well, by the way, the verb tenses.
It’s not, notice, why were you afraid (during the storm)—
not, why didn’t you have faith (during the storm),
but have you still no faith (after the storm)—
why are you afraid (now that the winds have ceased
and the water’s still)?

And the disciples said to one another,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
As if that’s what scared them.
As if, more than the storm, which was initially frightening,
it was, in the end, Jesus calming the storm
that was most frightening.
Who is this? Who does that?

Another true confession, I’d’ve been scared too.
As many super hero movies as I’ve seen,
and as much as I like the super hero Storm,
if someone were to actually command the weather,
I would be majorly freaking out.
That’s not anything I’ve experienced—
nothing I expect to ever experience.

And I know, consistency with my experience and expectations
is not determinative of the truth of Scripture.
However, you know, I’ve said it enough,
when I affirm the presence of God with me,
it’s hard for me to say that that presence is experienced differently now
than it was by people in the past.
I look for the ways in which a story is still true,
not for justifications for why it used to be as it is no more.

So what if it was never about the storm?
For if their fear was of the storm,
when the storm ceased, what would have remained?
Awe. Gratitude.
But the story says fear.
Mistranslated into awe—right?
But not awe. Fear.
And maybe they were afraid of Jesus—
of the growing awareness that he was other—
that there was an inexplicable, incomprehensible dimension to him.
But what also remained, in the aftermath of the storm,
was still the chaos of crossing to the other side.
The chaos of not avoiding them—of possibly encountering them
of having to have a conversation with them.
And the questions “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
do still make sense.

Maybe some of you wonder with no little frustration,
“Why do you always have to explain away the miracle?”
I didn’t. I don’t think I did.
What’s the miracle?
Something none of us have ever experienced
and have no expectation we ever will? Maybe.
I don’t—can’t rule that out.
But it could also be the miracle of people overcoming fear and prejudice
and crossing the chaos of boundaries and borders and customs
to reach the other side of what’s known and familiar that feels safe.
Who is this who remains calm in face of that?
That’s actually a richer miracle to me—
one full of more meaning, more possibility, more relevance, and more hope.

Getting back to the story,
there’s actually an easy answer to the disciples’ question:
“Who is this then?”
For according to Scriptural tradition,
“the commanding of the sea is something only God can do”
(see Job 26:11-12; Psalm 104:7; Isaiah 51:9-10)
(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2001] 176).
Who can take chaos, and in an utter lack of fear,
speak words of order and creation, hope and possibility?
Only God.

Susie reminded me of a time in Waco,
we were at the home of an Old Testament professor and his wife,
and they had had a flood in their house.
Jim, as he told the story, had been of absolutely no help—
flailing around helplessly—cluelessly—
until Donna got home, figured out what was going on
and restored order, calming both the waters and Jim.
And he lauded her and named her by the name of an ancient goddess
for it is only by divine power that the waters are controlled!

But what if the chaos of fear can also be overcome by followers of God—
those who maintain faith in grace even in fear
and co-create with God in and out of the chaos hope and possibility?

We live amidst chaotic times
and lots of people are afraid these days—
of different things—
of very different things.
Some are afraid of x,
others afraid of what we’re doing because of x,
still others afraid we’re ignoring y that’s part of the equation too,
and some know we don’t even know about z!
Afraid of different things,
but the fear, seems like we all have in common.

How then to have faith amidst the chaos—
How to get to the point where you’re not afraid of people?
Where you’re not angry? Where you’re not always blaming someone else?
You decide, do you not, that in spite of your fear—
your uncertainty, you will trust God—who God is.
You decide to hope in love and grace.
Are you still afraid of them?
Have you no faith in initiatives of grace? In reconciliation?
Have you no faith in those others—so different—
who are nonetheless also created in the very image of God—
just on the other side—just across the border?

And that’s it.
The story goes on, as mentioned, on the other shore—
in the country of the Gerasenes. You see, they did cross over.
They did come into contact with them.
That’s the ever unfolding story, isn’t it?
In the chaos of our borders and our living—
in the chaos of what it means to cross to the other side,
do we calm our fears and claim our faith and say,
“We will welcome the stranger.”
“We will be responsible for the least of these.”
“We will help our neighbors.”
“We will love our enemies.”
Because we believe in God’s future of reconciliation
not anyone else’s future of domination.

In the TV show Stranger Things,
the chaos of the inter-dimensional monster
that was brought into our world
creates an alternate dimension within our own.
The upside down, it’s called.
And though it was a chaos thought to be contained,
it tunnels underneath the surface of things
and rips inter-dimensional holes through the fabric of reality.
There’s one such hole in the hollow of a tree.
And it’s gooey and squishy and you have to ooze through it.
And Nancy does. Looking for Barb.
And I’m thinking “No way!
I am not crossing through that to get to the other side.”

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
faith not in what’s expedient, but what’s right.
not in what makes sense, but in what honors love.
not in what makes you more secure,
but in what secures hope for more than you.
not in our salvation,
but in God’s ongoing work for the redeeming of all creation.

How we live our lives, my friends,
as individuals, and as communities of faith,
and as citizens of our country,
is the best (and only) indication of our faith.
When our world sees what you support—what makes you angry—
what you deem worthy of your investment—what excites you,
do they see God’s love for all?
God’s hope for all?
God’s working for all?

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way,
“Every human interaction offers you the chance
to make things better or to make things worse.”
(Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
[New York: HarperCollins, 2009] 114).
Set before you and us, multiple times
this and every day, that choice.
Choose better.

stranger things: Jesus the Wise


Mark 4:26-34
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 92)
For Contemplation as Part of Worship
It is a good and healthy thing
to wake up to a new day with gratitude—
with thoughts and words of praise—
both about what’s been and what’s anticipated—

all within intentionally more specific gratitude
for the blessing—the gift—the wonder
of Your steadfast love, our God—
the faithfulness, in the assurance of which, we rest.

And as it is good to thus wake up,
so too, to lie down at night
listing—naming—maybe chanting—
identifying specific blessings

to the sound of imagined musical accompaniment—
the organ maybe—or not,
a full orchestra,
power chords on an electric guitar,
a jazz quartet.

It matters not.
The gift of music offered in response to the gift of grace.

For day by day and through my nights,
the signs of Your work sing to me—
signify Your presence and bring me joy.

How great the effects I know to name of faithful love.
How transformative their consequence—
how profound—pervasive—extensive.

Yet there are many who do not—
will not—cannot see—
would never dream,
amidst all the wickedness of our world—
within the reality that jerks and cheats flourish and prosper
in culturally approved and measurable ways—

there are many who do not know
the wicked, whatever appearance to the contrary,
have already been doomed in, by, and through love.

I guess some of those are blinded
by superficiality and selfishness.
Then there are those,
I’m not sure why they don’t—won’t name You.

Righteousness and justice
grow from Your heart, our God,
strong and true, green and healthy, into the light,
producing their bountiful fruit in the world—

another sign of who You are,
my solid, reliable foundation,
my rock
in whom there is but good—
in whom there is but love.
And again, I name my blessing.

So maybe you remember we mentioned,
or if you’re watching/have watched the Netflix TV series Stranger Things,
maybe you saw the episode
in which El opened that inter-dimensional door
letting in the monster?
Those in charge at Hawkins lab hoped to harness
and exploit its power.
Because that’s what they did there at Hawkins Lab.
They exploited power.
Because some ends supposedly justified whatever means.
Then when they discovered the monster could not be controlled,
they sought to contain it on the bottom floor of the lab.
But what we come to find out, along with them,
is that evil can’t be contained.

Evil finds ways to spread,
and the separation of one evil from another
does not exist.
Distinctions between evil are always illusory—
as much as the folks at Hawkins Lab try and justify what they do
as what needs to be done to keep us safe
as being strong enough to do what needs be done—
as much as we always explain away our evil
in comparison to theirs.
As if we can isolate evil always outside ourselves.

Blaming parents for risking life and limb
wanting a better future for their children is evil—
especially given how integral it is to our foundational myths
of the brave families who risked life and limb
for a better future across the ocean in a new land—
and then ever further west in that new land.
I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate concerns.
I’m not denying the complexity of the challenge of circumstances.
I am saying, blaming parents,
and separating children from their parents,
as a deterrent, as part of a zero tolerance mindset, is evil.
Justifying it in the name of God is blasphemy.
And blaming others for how you have chosen to act is loathsome.
That has to be named.
For as much as that is who we are,
it is not who I understand God calling us to be.
And that is a message coming clearly in one voice
from churches at their most conservative to the most liberal.

Evil finds ways to spread,
and the separation of one evil from another
does not exist.
Distinctions between evil are always illusory.

Of course, the same is true for good.

Both observations corollaries to my hypothesis
that the means are the ends.

Jesus also said on the shores of the sea of Galilee,
“The kingdom of God is as if someone
would scatter seed on the ground,
and would sleep and rise night and day,
and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head,
then the full grain in the head.
But when the grain is ripe,
at once he goes in with his sickle,
because the harvest has come.”

Here we have the kingdom of God compared not to something,
but to a story—an unfolding—a happening.

And right off the bat,
there are two profoundly different ways of reading this parable.
Is it God who sows the seed?
It’s pretty clear in the first parable Jesus tells the crowds by the lake
(the parable of the sower) that God is the actor,
the initiator, creator, redeemer,
and that the seed that takes root in us.

So is it God who sows in our parable too,
and having taken that initiative in creation and blessing,
waits to see what we do—
what fruit we produce before returning for the harvest?

Or, are we the sowers of seed—
taking initiative to share with others
what we have found to be most significant
most profound and most transformative in our own experience,
and then trusting the mysterious work of the divine
to effect growth and change we cannot see or control
until one day, maybe, we see the fruit.

And what if it’s my favorite answer to either/or questions?
What if it’s both?
What if we can claim the double assurance
of trusting both God’s mysterious work
and trusting God as alpha and omega—
beginning and end?
Which means we then also accept the double challenge
of being the ones who are to both initiate and share with others
and encourage and facilitate growth—
in us as in others.

However we read it,
we find the kingdom of God is a partnership
with both God and us having different responsibilities
and with both God and us waiting and trusting the other.
There’s what we initiate and what happens in consequence,
and there’s what God initiates and what happens in consequence.

And if we accept the parable at its most complex,
then there’s no way we can read it as a prescriptive
but only through a blurring of the lines and responsibilities.
We are together responsible, and we wait together,
trusting the mystery of the process—of the story still unfolding.

The Greek word translated “of itself”—the earth produces “of itself”—
is actually the one from which we get our word “automatic.”
When we’re working with God and taking responsibility and trusting the process,
there is an automatic unfolding of God’s story in growth and transformation.

Now that’s true for evil too, by the way.
There are initiatives not of God,
and by those not following God (whether they’ll admit that or not),
and what automatically keeps unfolding from such actions.

The kingdom of God unfolds from God.
The ways of the world unfold too, when they are chosen.
The means are the ends,
and what is our harvest?

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable will we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
yet when it is sown it grows up
and becomes the greatest of all shrubs,
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Traditionally, we tend to focus—
I’m fairly confident most of you will have heard a sermon or two,
on the itty-bitty seed
(and to be fair, the mustard seed is explicitly identified in the parable
as the smallest of all the seeds on earth.
It’s not that that’s wrong—that those sermons are wrong.
I think Clark has brought in mustard seeds before.
They are tiny)—
the itty-bitty seed that becomes a great, big, tall, majestic, magnificent—
Matthew and Luke change the story—
change the story … and botanical definitions.
Matthew writes when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs
and becomes a tree (Matthew 13:32), while Luke writes
it grew and became a tree (Luke 13:19)
which makes it a whole other story of transformation!
It is just a shrub—
achieving a maximum height of anywhere from two to ten feet!

I mean, relatively speaking, if you’re emphasizing small to big
a tiny seed (1 to 2 millimeters in diameter) that becomes a shrub—
even a big shrub as shrubs go,
is still not as impressive as a bigger seed—say an inch and a half or so,
that comes a cedar of Lebanon which can grow up to 120/130 feet—
with a spread of almost 100 feet and a trunk
that can exceed 8 feet in diameter!
There’s even a prophetic tradition identifying the great cedars
not only with Judah and Israel, but also the great kingdoms of earth:
Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria.

So the emphasis here is on small—
so small it’s almost pejorative—
(if you had faith the size of a mustard seed
[Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6]).
And so, growing in the shadow of the Roman Empire,
a delightfully subversive affirmation to encourage the church:
“the mustard bush, whether domesticated in a garden or wild in a field,
was an extremely noxious and dangerous plant,
as it threatened to take over whatever area its seed finally took root in.
Pliny the Elder says of it, ‘Mustard … with its pungent taste
and fiery effect … grows entirely wild,
though it is improved by being transplanted:
but on the other hand when it has once been sown
it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it,
as the seed when it falls germinates at once’ (Natural History, 19.170-1)”
(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2001] 172).

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately
likens the rule of God to a weed” (quoted in Witherington, 172).

So there’s that.
More than small to big and impressive,
it’s small to hardy and resistant and pervasive—
and great is the faithfulness of God.

Or, what’s great is not the shrub,
not whatever’s impressive about it
or scrappy or hardy, pervasive—nothing about the shrub,
but about what the shrub offers.
And the whole point, do you see?—
the whole point is not that it’s itty-bitty
and then gets big or impressive or takes over,
it’s so that—the whole thing is so that
the whole process is so that the seed becomes a shrub
that becomes a home.
It meets the needs of a community—
so that the birds of the air can make nests.

And there is a sense, reading this,
of the birds of the air in a cumulative sense—
as an expansive image of a multitude of birds.
Maybe the reference to birds of the air reminds you
as it did me, of the creation stories.
On the fifth day, God created the birds of the air
and on the sixth day, after creating humankind,
made them stewards of creation—including the birds of the air
(Genesis 1:20, 26, 30; 2: 19, 20).
But again, if you were going for room for more birds,
surely a cedar of Lebanon would provide more shade and shelter
instead of trying to imagine the birds of the air
nesting in a shrub that’s barely 10 feet high!

Unless of course, maybe—
even more subtly—more creatively—so wise—
unless the affirmation
is that this unimpressive shrub is bigger that it looks—
like a certain stable in Narnia.
Y’all familiar with the C.S. Lewis book The Last Battle?

Tirian had thought – or he would have thought if he had had time to think at all – that they were inside a little thatched stable, about twelve feet long and six feet wide. In reality they stood on grass, the deep blue sky was overhead, and the air which blew gently on their faces was that of a day in early summer. …
“The door?” said Tirian.
“Yes,” said Peter. “The door you came in – or came out – by. Have you forgotten?” … Tirian looked and saw the queerest and most ridiculous thing you can imagine. Only a few yards away, clear to be seen in the sunlight, there stood up a rough wooden door and, round it, the framework of the doorway: nothing else, no walls, no roof. He walked towards it, bewildered … He walked round to the other side of the door. But it looked just the same from the other side….
“Fair Sir,” said Tirian to the High King, “this is a great marvel.” … “It seems, then … that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world”
(C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle [New York: HarperCollins, 1965] 156-161).

In the less than impressive,
in what does not measure up to the kingdoms of the world
by the standards of the world,
there is nonetheless room for all.
And this kingdom does not worry about immigrants,
it welcomes them—celebrates them—
as the Bible says to do!
This kingdom does not exclude—does not turn away.
It is a kingdom invested in justice—for all—
in community.
It’s a fake kingdom, of course, by the standards of the world,
but more real than any other.
How’s that for faithful?

Notice in both our parables the shift from the individual—
from the seed and the shrub to the birds nesting in it—
from individual seeds to a crop and a harvest—
that which will provide for a community.
There’s a “so that” there too, isn’t there?
The unfolding of grace into community so that
the community can be nurtured and nourished on good fruit.
Movement from the individual to the communal,
surely there’s something of the kingdom of God to that!

I mentioned last week,
the movement in Stranger Things
from some who risk so much on behalf of others
to more and more who do so.
To the point, that it begins to feel uncomfortable
when individuals are left out—
when they’re excluded.
For those of you who watch or have watched
I’m thinking of Lucas and Mike.
I’m thinking of Max.
Barbara, early on. There’s tension—disagreement,
and they’re on the outside, and it doesn’t feel right.

Our culture is set up in so many ways
to evaluate people individually.
To assess individual success and accomplishment.
There’s a corresponding valuation of individual responsibility.
That’s not all bad.
Lot of good to that.
But it’s not all good.

If it were our culture telling these stories instead of Jesus,
the first parable would be about growing a harvest
and getting as much money for it as possible.
The goal is not the nourishment of community
but the profit of the individual or the corporation.

The second parable would be about growing a bush
and then putting a fence around it
so no one can nest in it without paying rent—their fair share.
After all, who wants to deal with all that noise and the bird poop, right?

A parable—a parable by Jesus,
invites us to consider how we would tell the parable—
in our homes, in our churches, in our country,
and to reflect on how those tellings differ
from the stories as Jesus told them—
to reflect on what that says about us—
our families, our churches, our country.

Because our stories honestly
do not consistently reflect the kingdom of God.
They tend to (with some wonderful exceptions)
reflect an us-or-them mentality
that’s part of a zero sum game
creating winners and losers.

So Mark adds a concluding word about parables.
With many such parables he spoke the word to them,
as they were able to hear it
(because they’re not the stories they would have told
anymore than they’re the stories we would tell);
he did not speak to them except in parables,
but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

This sequence of stories starts
with Jesus talking to a large crowd by the sea (Mark 4:1).
Then you have this very odd verse:
When he was alone, those who were around him—
so he wasn’t alone, right?!
those who were around him—along with the twelve
(what does alone mean to Mark?)
all those people who were alone with him
asked him about the parables (Mark 4:10).
Because arables are not crystal clear.
They’re not meant to be.
They’re not definitions or explanations.

Jesus went on to say: “To you has been given
the secret of the kingdom of God,
but for those outside, everything comes in parables” (Mark 4:11).

We like to think we’re included among the disciples—
that we’re there when Jesus is alone—
with whoever all’s there with his disciples,
but we overhear what two “explanations?”
Luke has some twenty-four parables,
Matthew twenty-three, Mark eight.
Some would say a few of John’s teachings are parables.
So we get a number of anywhere from 45 to 60 parables in the gospels.
And how many are interpreted? Explained?
And in Mark, just the one—the parable of the sower.
We are those outside more than we are those who know the secrets.
We get more stories than we do explanations.
We get more mystery than clarity.

What is it about a teacher
who wants students to wonder and ask questions
instead of have answers?
And why have we, as those students,
too much too often prioritized answers over questions?
What is it about a storyteller
who trusts the mystery
and who trusts the questions?
It’s something like someone who sows seed
and trusts the natural process of growth, isn’t it?—
who believes that something as little as a story
can shape a place, a way of being, a people—
can transform thinking and living
undermining Empire and all the narratives counter to God’s story,
and give people a home
in which to feel welcomed and beloved—
a home in which and from which
to sow and harvest and be nourished by
the good fruits of justice and kindness and and humility.
Can we expect that these days?
Justice and kindness and humility?

He does not speak to us except in parables
which take root in us … or not.
But if they do,
they grow and grow
and become magnificent … weeds
that are surprisingly … wonderfully …
big enough to welcome everyone … anyone.

Amidst all the shallow, ugly, mean stories of our days,
thanks be to God.

stranger things: the monster



Mark 3:19b-35
Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters* are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 130)
A Song of Getting Back Up
I’ve hit rock bottom,
and it’s You to whom I cry out.
Somewhat to my surprise,
I don’t know if it’s in anger
or with something like maybe … hope.

Hear me, please.

I don’t know whether You hear me—
sometimes even whether You’re here to hear me,
but I do so want You to.

As manifestation of all that’s good and just,
I know I’ve fallen far short of Your hopes and expectations of me
and have no right to have hopes and expectations of You.
And yet part of what’s good about You,
if not just,
is Your grace—
Your forgiveness,
and so there’s hope.

So I sink into the stories of grace—
of undeserved forgiveness—
of unexpected welcome.
More than those who make it through the night
desperately waiting for the dawn,
my soul waits for You.

O creation, hope in God
for in the stories of God, there is ever the refrain of steadfast love
and the power and the will to redeem
even all who fall so far short.

One of the beauties and joys of the Netflix TV series Stranger Things,
is its depiction of friendship and of family—
specifically the allegiances and commitments therein:
the allegiance and commitment a mom has to her child,
a brother has to his brother,
and friends have to a friend.

There’s such a powerful sense of interdependence
developed throughout the show—of mutual responsibility.
It’s an intimate bond that gradually extends
to a wider and wider group as the show progresses—
including—incorporating—more and more people into this
“I have your back,” “I’ll be there for you” intimacy.
Various combinations of characters
brave seriously creepy, scarily dangerous scenarios
that leave you thinking “I’m not sure I’d do that”
because someone matters to them.

And having faced the purity laws—the distinctions, divisions and judgments
of the religious establishment—having rejected the status quo
because people mattered to him more,
Jesus went home—
presumably back to Capernaum—
maybe to Simon and Andrew’s house (that’s where he’d been earlier).
And the crowd came together again (they’d been there earlier too) —
so many waiting to be healed—to be made whole,
and maybe wanting as well, to hear his good news—
stories of grace and forgiveness—of belonging and inclusion.

Why does religion so often need to be reminded
that it’s etymological root goes back to a Latin verb
meaning “to bind together”—not to divide, separate, or judge?

The crowd came together again, so that no one could even eat.
What does it mean to love others as you love yourself?
What does love mean when they’re desperate and you’re hungry?

When his family heard about this—got word of it,
they went out to restrain him.
The word means “to seize by force”—“to take control of!”

His family went out to restrain him.
It’s not that they didn’t like the crowds attracted to him.
It was more: “Get your priorities in order!
Take care of yourself. They’re not as important as you are.
How will you be able to keep helping people
if you don’t take care of yourself?
You’re going to burn out.”

They wanted to restrain him
for people (our translation reads) were saying,
“He has gone out of his mind.”
Most translations though, read that that’s what his family was saying
(“He’s off his rocker”), not people—
which makes sense.
Who else among the characters in our story would say that?
Not the crowd. They weren’t upset at what he was doing.
They wanted him to be doing more of it!
The disciples might have thought it,
but I don’t think they would have said it—yet.

No, this was his family—worried about him—
questioning his lack of boundaries.
“Come on, Jesus! Who doesn’t need time away from other people?
Who doesn’t limit their work time?
Who’s not selective in who they spend their mealtime with—
free time—leisure time? You are seriously off your gourd!”
I mean, doesn’t that sound like siblings?!

It’s the overstatement of those who care, but don’t understand.
“We’ve got your back, Jesus!
We’re here to take care of you!”

And there were scribes who came down from Jerusalem
“It is possible that they were official emissaries from the Great Sanhedrin
who came to examine Jesus’ miracles and to determine
whether Capernaum should be declared a ‘seduced city,’
the prey of an apostate preacher.
Such a declaration required a thorough investigation
made on the spot by official envoys,
in order to determine the extent of the defection
and to distinguish between the instigators, the apostates and the innocent”
(William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974] 141).

How do you love others as yourself if you’re dividing them
into those included and those excluded?
How do you love others if you’ve taken it upon yourselves
to examine and investigate and name some innocent and some not?
And we have to be careful here,
because we all examine and investigate—and should,
but how do you love others if, in your investigating,
you’ve prioritized separation and exclusion over reconciliation?

These scribes said of Jesus,
“He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.
We’re here to take care of him.”
It’s the oldest trick in the book.
If you have a dispute with someone in the public eye,
identify them first with and then as evil—
as someone from whom others need to be protected.

And he called them to him.
Now, by the rule of antecedents,
that means Jesus summoned the scribes.
He’s the immediate antecedent tot he pronoun “he;”
they’re the immediate antecedent to the pronoun “they.”
Which is weird—that they would have obeyed Jesus—
submitted to the very authority they were actively seeking
to question and undermine!

So either he had an undeniable authority even the scribes obeyed,
or they really thought they had him.
Or both!

Then, having summoned them, Jesus spoke to them in parables,
“The Greek word for parable … means literally a ‘setting beside’ …”
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1971] 116).
“So, on the one hand, you say
I cast out demons by the power of the prince of demons,
but on the other hand, how can Satan cast out Satan?
Demons play on the same team.
Satan doesn’t strike out Satan.
If demons started striking each other out,
the demonic team wouldn’t amount to much.
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”

There are two associations here
that establish the logic of the progression in thought.
There’s the logical flow from the ruler of demons divided against himself
to the idea of the demonic kingdom as a divided kingdom.
But also within the historical context of the Jews,
Alexander’s Empire fell when it was divided between his generals.
The Jewish Hasmonean dynasty fell to Rome
leading to the loss of Jewish independence
when two brothers fought for the throne.
That particular sibling rivalry led to 12,000 Jews killed
in the final assault of Roman forces in Jerusalem
and General Pompey entering (and thus desecrating)
the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

Jesus goes on, “And if a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.”
Now what’s the logical progression here?
I mean there’s the whole divided against itself motif,
but having gone from a ruler to a kingdom,
why go back to a house?
Unless this goes back to his house—
his family divided against him?
That makes some kind of sense.

But then it’s right back to Satan, with Jesus saying,
“And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided,
he cannot stand, but his end has come.”

And it is true: evil can and does turn on itself.
But that doesn’t seem to be what our story’s about—
evil defeating itself.

So there’s consensus among scholars about this next verse:
“But no one can enter a strong man’s house
and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man;
then indeed the house can be plundered.”
Scholars agree that Satan, far from falling apart—
far from defeating himself—Satan is the strong man,
and Jesus, far from using Satan’s power.
defeats Satan’s powers and plunders his house—
hell, I guess—the demonic kingdom.

a/ that doesn’t seem to be what our story’s about either.
I mean, if you strip the story down to its basics,
it’s about Jesus’ family and the scribes working against him—
undermining him.
Also, b/, don’t you think it’s kind of weird
to think of Jesus describing himself as a strong man
who binds someone else and plunders their house?
And finally, c/, as we think about a house being plundered,
we remember we’ve already encountered the image of a house—
one that will not be able to stand because it’s divided against itself,
and we wondered if that house might be Jesus’.

So if the strength of the house is unity,
and you bind that strength, you disrupt the unity.
And if this is Jesus’ house,
divisions within his family allow the house to be plundered.
And then, if you’re thinking institutionally as well,
divisions within the institutions of faith
threaten the stability and viability of those institutions.
So what if this isn’t about Jesus defeating the enemy,
but about the risk of Jesus being defeated—
the risk of Jesus’ house—the church being defeated—
not just by those against him—
actively, intentionally working to undermine him,
but also by those who care about him, but don’t understand him—
don’t understand his commitment to the world.
such that a rejection of Jesus
is the elevation of the comfortable self
over the whole.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins
and whatever blasphemies they utter;
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit
can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
I’m not so sure what to make of the idea of an unforgivable sin.
That seems to me to be something placing limits
on God’s love and God’s grace.
It also leaves us trying to identify what this particular sin is.
Because, well, if it’s unforgivable, I sure don’t want to do that one!

It tends to be ascribed to the scribes
who attributed to Satan the power Jesus manifest
and so, actually, thus committed themselves
the blasphemy of which they accused Jesus.

But given everyone who participates in divisive behavior
in our story, should we consider the possibility
that blasphemy might have something to do with caring about Jesus
and yet still undermining him and his mission—
something to do not with rejection, not with denial,
but with distortion in the name of affirmation?
Something to do with those who say, “We’ve got your back,”
but then stab you in the back
and justify racism,
are silent in the face of injustice,
who relegate women to a second class status,
who reject those created lgbtquia in God’s image,
who are mean,
whose yes is not a yes and whose no is not a no,
who justify both obscene wealth and obscene poverty—
and all in the name of Jesus.

Jesus might well just wisely reverse what Michael Corleone said,
and say “Keep your enemies close;
keep your friends closer!”

For they had said, we read, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Now who had said that?
We’re not sure, are we? It’s not a direct quote in our story.
So does it refer back to the scribes ascribing his power to a demon,
or to his family saying he was out of his mind?
Either way, note this is not a comment
made in response to what Jesus said about an unforgivable sin,
but it’s what prompted what Jesus said about an unforgivable sin.
Important to get the order right!
And it leaves me wondering if we waste time trying to identify some sin
when maybe Jesus was talking about an attitude.

Then his mother and his brothers came;
and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.
A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him,
“Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

The image here is of a house so packed full of people
that there are people surrounding the house who can’t get in.
Jesus’ family arrives and they’re stuck outside with all the others stuck outside.
Word is passed through the crowd,
“Hey, tell Jesus his family is out here!”
until it gets to those right around Jesus—until it gets to Jesus.
“Hey Jesus! Your family is out there.”
Now think about this.
The message had to have changed.
Not in the funny, garbled, distorted telephone game kind of way,
but from “He’s out here” to “He’s out there.”
Now I think it’s always important to affirm
that place and context change the content of what’s said.
But, more importantly,
we see there was division at the house in Capernaum—
not just between Jesus and his family, not just between Jesus and the scribes,
but also between those on the inside who could see and hear Jesus,
and those outside who wanted to see and hear him.

So I’m guessing, you had those on the inside,
“Your family, who has exclusive claims on you, is here,
and we’re afraid we’re out of luck.”
And maybe those outside, “His family is here,
maybe they will get him out here where we can see!”

But Jesus rejects exclusive claims and privileges.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks.
And looking at those who sat around him, he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers!”—
which in the way we’re thinking about things,
sounds like it excludes the folks outside.
But Jesus goes on:
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

“But John,” you might say,
“you’ve been talking about holiness as wholeness—
as not separating and dividing,
and here Jesus is separating.
He’s rejecting his family.
That’s monstrous!”
Except not really, right?
Jesus is separating himself from those who separate,
and he’s widening the definition of family to include anyone!
He’s rejecting an exclusive circle for an inclusive one—
rejecting a given blood tie, for a chosen tie,
Blessed be the tie that binds.

And for times such as ours, according to Jesus,
if the house is divided, you include others.
You include them.
You make it bigger!
You create a wider, less exclusive, more diverse community.

Y’all heard of Betty Bowers?
She’s the satirical persona of a Canadian comedian
who self-identifies as America’s Best Christian:
“I’m America’s Best Christian. God created me in His image
and I have MORE than returned the favor. Glory!”

Her pithy twitter comments are often quite searingly prophetic:
“Jesus forgave me for my sins so I could concentrate on yours.”

I cannot verify that all are appropriate, but the ones I’ve seen
are wickedly apropos.
She has also defined religious freedom, for example,
as “pretending to follow a religion you ignore
so you can be a [jerk] to people you hate, and then blame Jesus.”

That’s that attitude.
That’s the we’ve got your back; we stab you in the back thing.
That’s the risk Jesus faces in the world—
the church faces in the world.

It is so tricky.
Because it is so important not to be silent in the face of injustice—
in the face of sin.
It’s not about not saying anything about reprehensible behavior
towards women—towards blacks and latinos—
towards the lgbtquia community—
and calling it being nice—polite.
It’s not about not saying anything about reprehensible politics
that hurt vulnerable people
and saying worship is not the place for politics.
And, my friends, it needs to be said these days,
when it comes to the important responsibility of naming sin,
as followers of Jesus,
we should focus on what Jesus said, not what he didn’t.
And heaven forbid we should get all bent out of shape
about what he said nothing of
as we do not do what he explicitly said to do.
Because there goes integrity and relevance and a viable future.

Our faith is about taking responsibility for sin.
The systemic sins of our culture.
Other people’s sin, yes.
But always and only in the context of our own sin.
Confession first—
identification with another as sinner.
Identification not separation.
Holiness even amidst sin.

May that comprise who we strive to be.